Misquoting by the Religious Right on Church-State Separation
Tom Peters


In this section we look at how some religious right authors have misquoted the framers of the Constitution. While most accomodationists are (as much as we disagree with them) competent scholars, some popular conservative authors have stooped to taking the framers' writings out of context, or fabricating quotes altogether. Some of these misquotations have popped up again and again on the usenet, often without any source citations, and always without any attempt to verify accuracy. Here we list some of the more popular of these misquotations. Additionally, we look at one example of where accomodationists have accused separationists of inaccurately characterizing the background of a quotation.

If you have a misquotation you want to see included on this page, please let us know. Include a source citation so that we can verify the nature of the misquote. 

[As well as the misquotations listed under the subtitles] let's turn to a list of quotations that frequently appear in religious right literature, but are now admitted by religious right leaders to be either doubtful or false. The source of this list is none other than David Barton, an important accomodationist author we criticize extensively in our responses to the quotations above, and elsewhere in this website. Briefly, Barton has released a press statement stating that nine of the quotations appearing in his book The Myth of Separation (including the first two above) are of doubtful authenticity (one of these has since been authenticated; see below). Additionally, he lists three others that are popularly cited by other conservative authors, but are probably not true. A good article summarizing Barton's list can be found in the July/August 1996 edition of Church and State, A separationist publication.

Barton lists the following quotations as unconfirmed (i.e., no one has been able to trace them to an original source):

Additionally, Barton lists the following quote as inaccurate:

Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of the redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise. In this sense and to this extend, our civilizations and our institutions are emphatically Christian. --The Supreme Court in Holy Trinity

Did Madison ever say that our future is staked on the 10 commandments?

Research and Writing by Jim Allision

On page 120 of David Barton's book The Myth of Separation, David Barton quotes James Madison as saying:

Barton gives the following footnote for the quotation:

The only problem with the above is, no such quote has ever been found among any of James Madison's writings. None of the biographers of Madison, past or present have ever run across such a quote, and most if not all would love to know where this false quote originated. Apparently, David Barton did not check the work of the secondary sources he quotes.

Robert Alley, an distinguished historian at the University of Richmond, has recently made an attempt to track down the origin of this quote. You can read about his effort in "Public Education and the Public Good," William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal,, Summer 1995, pp. 316-318.

Did Madison ever say that religion is the foundation of government?

Research and writing by Jim Allison.

Another popular misquotation by the religious right has Madision saying that religion is the foundation of government. David Barton, in his book The Myth of Separation contains a popular version of that this quotation, on page 120:

This isn't the only form of the quotation. Here are some other variations:

I would say the most honest form is the first and second, because they do indicate it has been extracted from something else, the third gives such an indication as well.

The last two forms are the least honest. However, all forms are incorrect, because Madison never said anything like this.

The footnote Barton gives as his source is valid:

The first clue that something is wrong here is that these pages turn out to correspond to Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance, a document written in support of separation of church and state.

In SECTION 1, a little over halfway through it you will actually find the following sentence, "Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe..."

Now to find the rest of what was used to create version one (the version from page 120 of Barton's book) we have to jump over to SECTION 15, (I might add at this point it is very rare to see anyone use version one; most use one of the other versions. I guess Barton wanted to spice it up even more and included the above sentence as part of it.)

I will use capitals to indicate the words Barton selected to arrive at his newly created false quote:

Madison, in other words, was talking about individual's rights, of which the free exercise of his religion was one, as being the basis and foundation of government. He even refers to the Declaration of Rights that was part of the Virginia Constitution as his example.

Personal, individual rights is what Madison believed to be the basis and foundation of government, not religion itself. Whomever created this false quote knew what he said, knew what they wanted him to say in its place, and set out to create what they wanted him to say.

This was no accident or simple misunderstanding.

Did the Supreme Court of New York, in an 1811 decision, ever say that the First Amendment was "never meant to withdraw religion...from all consideration and notice of the law?"

Research by Jim Allison. Writing by Tom Peters.

On page 248 of his The Myth of Separation, David Barton provides us with a highly edited quotation from The People v. Ruggles, an 1811 decision by the Supreme Court of the State of New York. The case involved a man arrested for publicly criticizing the Christian religion. Barton quotes the decision (written by Chief Justice James Kent) as follows:

Note that Barton puts the words "First Amendment" in brackets. In doing so, Barton indicates that these words are not in the original quotation, but are being provided for the sake of context. But is this quotation really about the First Amendment, or is Barton taking this quotation out of context?

Here's the quotation in full (the material reproduced by Barton is in capital letters):

Clearly, the "declaration" referred to in the quotation above is not the First Amendment. Rather, the reference is to Article 38 of the New York State Constitution. Barton simply omits the words that furnish the proper context of the quote, and then adds words in brackets that provide a false context.

It is impossible to explain Barton's editing of this quote as an honest mistake. Kent's reference to Article 38 is explicit, as is his quotation of the Article's language. Indeed, Kent's argument depends on this language; he quotes it as if it self-evidently supports his narrow view of establishment. That the author of a 336 page book would misunderstand this language passes belief. Conversely, if this is an honest mistake, it is telling evidence against Barton's competence as a reader and editor.

This isn't the only place Barton gets into trouble over The People v. Ruggles. On pages 55-58 of The Myth of Separation, Barton reproduces almost two pages of quotes from the decision. Once again, however, the reference to, and quotation from, Article 38 is omitted. On the top of page 56 there is one quotation that references the New York State Constitution; we think this puts Barton in a very difficult situation: if he knew on page 56 that The People v. Ruggles was about the New York Constitution, why did he introduce the words "First Amendment" on page 248? And, outside of this single quote, all of Barton's other references in this section are to simply "the constitution" or "the Constitution," which might well lead readers to conclude that Justice Kent is talking about the federal Constitution. On page 58, for example, Barton says of Kent's opinion:

In this case Barton inserts the words "The Constitution" in brackets when the actual reference is to Article 38 of the New York Constitution. While this isn't as blatant as inserting the words "First Amendment," Barton's reference seems calculated to make the reader think that Kent is talking about the Federal Constitution.

Barton's editing of The People v. Ruggles is both selective and dishonest. Barton does everything he can to obscure the fact that The People v. Ruggles has nothing to do with the federal Constitution or the First Amendment. His vague references to "the Constitution," and his editing out of any mention of Article 38, completely obscures the context of the decision, and his insertion of the words "First Amendment" on page 248 is flatly incorrect.

Did Supreme Court justice and early legal historian Joseph Story every say that, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, there was near universal consensus that "Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state?"

Yes, but this is a classic example of quoting a source out of context. In fact, Story's statement has nothing to do with the First Amendment or the powers of the federal government. On the contrary, a closer look at his writings suggests that he believed that the federal government had no ability whatsoever to aid religion.

Joseph Story was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1811-1845, and the most important legal commentator of his day. In 1851, while serving as the Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University, he published his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, which included a short section on religious liberty. In the opening pages of this section Story argued for the importance of religious faith for good government, and then proceeded to claim that:

Accomodationists sometimes use this statement as proof that the Constitution could not have been intended to prohibit federal support for religion. But this is to misread Story's claim. All Story is claiming here is that, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, there was widespread sentiment for aiding Christianity. What Story does not claim here is that the Constitution empowered the federal government to give such aid. Indeed, only a few pages latter in his Commentaries he explicitly denies that the federal government had such power:

Story, in other words, believed, along with Madison, Jefferson, and a host of other framers, that the Constitution gave no power to the federal government over religion. With respect to the federal government, Story was a separationist. Accomodationists quote him out of context when they reproduce his general statements, but not his specific claim that the federal government has no authority over religion.

Did John Quincy Adams ever say that the American Revolution "connected in one indissoluable bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity?"

Research by Jim Allison.

In the first edition of his videotape, America's Godly Heritage, David Barton quotes John Quincy Adams as follows:

While the quote doesn't appear in any of Barton's later works, it does turn up in another popular Christian book, William J. Federer's, America's God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations, p. 18. Federer provides a date for the quotation (July 4, 1821), and gives the source as follows:

We recently located this source and now suspect that John Quincy Adams never uttered these words. Here's what we found:

Pages X through XXXVIII of the Thornton book are a historical introduction to the subject of religion in the New England States, with a special focus on the state of Massachusetts. Throughout this introduction, Thornton quotes various early Americans on the subject of religion. At least some of the quotations are footnoted, and all of them appear to be enclosed in quotation marks. Sometimes portions of the quotations are italicized for emphasis.

The words attributed to John Quincy Adams appear on page XXIX. None of these words are placed in quotation marks. Rather, the sentence reads as if Thornton is making his own conclusion about what John Quincy Adams believed. Thornton's sentence reads as follows:

No footnote for these words is given. Nor are the words attached to a date. Hence, if these words are a quotation from Adams, it is impossible to trace them back from Thornton's book to an original source. Elsewhere in the book Adams' father (John Adams) is quoted properly, i.e., with footnotes and quotation marks.

It appears, in other words, that somewhere down the line Thornton's conclusions about John Quincy Adams were passed off as Adam's own remarks. In Federer's case, his reproduction of the quotation doesn't edit out the words "said John Quincy Adams" and replace them with ellipses; either he knowingly misreports Thornton's words, or he didn't check his sources for accuracy. It is, of course, possible, that the printer made a mistake and forgot the quotation marks but, until somebody can locate the original source of the quote, there is no ground whatsoever to treat these words and Adams' own. The quote should be regarded as bogus.

Please note: even if Adams did say these words it wouldn't bolster the accomodationist's case; as we suggest elsewhere, Adams would simply be wrong to argue that the federal Constitution embodies the principles of Christianity. It doesn't, and Adams' saying so doesn't prove a thing. Rather, the real importance of this quote is as a demonstration of just how far some popular Christian authors will go to prove their case. Nothing in the Thornton book justifies taking the "indissoluble bond" quote as John Quincy Adams' own words, but because it says something the right wants to hear, the words are pressed into service anyway. This isn't good scholarship, and the consumers of Barton and Federer's work should be aware of just how poor their research is.

© 1996

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