First, I want to thank Ed Brayton for the link under his “interesting people,” section of his blog. Brayton has an excellent post elsewhere on his site entitled Answering a "Christian Nation" E-mail, where he deals with those theocratic revisionists who seek to destroy the line between Church & State and who otherwise absurdly claim that our public institutions are founded on Biblical principles.
I’ve debated this subject quite a bit on different Internet sites. And when I do, the theocrats repeatedly cite the same certain “side quotes” (as opposed to the text of Founding documents, or the Federalist papers) to prove their case. Many prominent religious conservative figures have heavily relied on these same quotes in their writings to prove the same point. Yet as I’ve discovered, (with the help of Brayton and others) many of these quotes are simply false.
Most of these false quotes can be traded back to one man: David Barton, who penned a book entitled, “The Myth of Separation,” that is riddled with factual errors and outright falsehoods. (This is not the first time that the religious right has wholeheartedly embraced “research” that ends being exposed as totally fraudulent. Regarding social science on homosexuality—this reminds me of how fundamentalists embraced the dubious work of one Paul Cameron. The history of the use of this man’s fraudulent work boggles the mind. After Cameron’s work is repeatedly exposed as total horseshit, some conservative thinker or group cites Cameron’s figures only to have their heads handed to them on a plate. I won’t go into too much detail on this now—it could be the subject of another [very long] post; follow my links if you are interested. Recently, the Heritage foundation included some Cameron’s figures on a database on homosexuality—only to be properly rebuked by Andrew Sullivan and others—and they ate crow & took them down. Previously, Bill Bennett publicly cited the Cameron lie that median gay lifespan is 43, only to be rebuked by, again, Andrew Sullivan et al., and Bennett too ate crow and retracted his support for this figure.)
Here are some of the false quotes that are thrown in my face:
On July 4, 1821, President Adams said, "The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: It connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity."
And here is how Brayton deals with it:
This is another textbook example of what happens when quotes are simply passed along and repeated without anyone bothering to check the original source to see if it's accurate. This is why, in scholarly documents, footnotes are used to provide specific documentation of the source of a quote. Let's follow the trail backwards and see where it leads. The quote is used by David Barton, who is nearly always the modern source of false quotations from the founding fathers. We'll see an example of another one below. Barton did not get it from the original documents, he got it from another book of quotations by William Federer called America's God and Country: An Encyclopedia of Quotations. So Federer got it from the original, right? Wrong. Federer's footnote is to a book by John Wingate Thornton from 1860. The Thornton book is full of quotations and footnotes locating the source of those quotes. But these words, attributed to John Quincy Adams, are not in fact a quote at all. The words belonged to Thornton. The words are not in quotation marks and there is no footnote giving a source. And no one has ever located an original source from Adams that contain those words, of even a similar sentiment to it. The quote, to be blunt, is a fake. Adams never said it. But this is an excellent example of what passes for historical scholarship among the Christian Nation proponents - the truth doesn't matter so long as something can be made to appear as supporting their position.
This time it’s James Madison who is falsely attributed as saying this:
"We have staked the whole future of all our political constitutions upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments."
And Bratyon’s response:
Another excellent example of the shoddy scholarship of David Barton and his ilk and another quote that simply does not exist. The quote appears in Barton's book, The Myth of Separation, but the footnotes are not to any document written by Madison at all. He cites two other sources, neither of which quotes any document from Madison either. No one has ever located the quote in any of the literally tens of thousands of pages of original documents from or about Madison. The historian Robert Alley, a Madison scholar, has done an exhaustive search and finds nothing even close to this quote from Madison himself. It is entirely inconsistent with everything else that Madison has to say on the subject. After several years of being hammered for his use of such quotations, Barton finally wrote an article admitting that there were a large number of quotes that have never been confirmed that he uses.
Brayton also informs us that there is no evidence that George Washington ever said this: "It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible."
Now that I’ve praised Brayton’s work, let me offer one criticism: He missed one big whopper—also put forth by Barton. (And up until recently I too thought that this founder said the following quote): It’s by Patrick Henry:
"It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great Nation was founded not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For that reason alone, people of other faiths have been afforded freedom of worship here."
There is no evidence, outside of David Barton, that Patrick Henry ever uttered these words. And this in fact is one of those quotes that Barton mentioned in his article that he admitted had never been confirmed (if anyone knows where I can access online this mea culpa article written by Barton, please let me know).
One the one hand, I first believed the quote because Patrick Henry did indeed try to integrate Church & State in VA—but lost the battle to do so there much to the hard work of Madison, Jefferson, and others. But even keeping this in mind, upon further examination, given what we know Henry's militant anti-federalist views, he could not possibly have uttered these words.
Patrick Henry would never have used the words “this great nation,” in that context. First, the date given for this quote is 1776 (I have seen others state 1778—but let’s just say, it was shortly after the we declared our independence but well before the US Constitution was adopted), we technically were not yet a “nation.” Now I realize, there are some thinkers—most notably Lincoln—who theorize that we were one nation at that time, that the Union actually preceded the existence of the states. And indeed some founding fathers—Madison, for instance, who saw no problem with the Federal government enforcing natural rights against the states—might have been sympathetic to this view. But this was by no means a unanimous view of the Founders. And if any of the founders would have held to this view, it would have been the strong federalists, like Madison. The anti-federalists— especially the militant ones like Henry—simply did not believe during 1776, that the united States was a “great nation,” but rather that we were a collection of “Free and Independent States.” Back then the united (and this word was purposefully not capitalized in the Declaration) States (this word was) was referred to in the plural sense. At least every single reference I have ever seen Henry make to the United States, he spoke in the plural sense.
Patrick Henry, in fact, voted against the US Constitution because he thought that it gave the federal government too much power. Particularly, he objected to the phrase, "we the people of the United States," (he preferred "We, the states") because this implied one "great consolidated government," which Henry regarded as "pernicious, impolitic, and dangerous." Henry made it clear that he preferred "a confederation" with "the States" as "agents of this compact."
In short, there is no way that Henry, as a militant anti-federalist and loather of the idea of one great centralized American nation, would have referred to the United States, shortly after we Declared Independence, as “this great nation.” It absolutely defies credulity.