As an evangelical Christian and a member of the Christian Coalition, I felt obliged to expose a misquote of John Adams' I found in an article entitled "America's Unchristian Beginnings"1 by the self-avowed atheist Dr. Steven Morris. However, what happened next changed my focus to the use of misquotes, unconfirmed quotes, and misleading attributions by the religious right.
In the process of attempting to correct Morris, I was guilty of using several misquotes myself. Professor John George of the University of Central Oklahoma political science department and coauthor (with Paul Boller Jr.) of the book They Never Said It!2 set me straight. George pointed out that George Washington never said, "It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible."3 I had cited page 18 of the 1927 edition of Halley's Bible Handbook. This quote was probably generated by a similar statement that appears in A Life of Washington4 by James Paulding. Sadly, no one has been able to verify any of the quotes in Paulding's book since no footnotes were offered.
After reading They Never Said It! I had a better understanding of how widespread the problem of misquotes is. Furthermore, I discovered that many of these had been used by the leaders of the religious right. I decided to confront some individuals concerning their misquotes. WallBuilders, the publisher of David Barton's The Myth of Separation, responded by providing me with their "questionable quote" list which contained dozens of quotes widely used by the religious right.
Proverbs 19:25 states, "...rebuke a discerning man, and he will gain knowledge." Since I was rebuking fellow Christians, I felt certain they would all gladly quit using unconfirmed quotes. The religious right leaders I contacted had three different responses.
The first: Several thanked me for bringing these corrections to their attention. They agreed that it is wrong to use disputed quotes as if they were authentic. This is the response I expected from all those I contacted, but I was in for a rude awakening.
The second, which was the most common response, was to claim that their critics were biased skeptics who find the truth offensive. The premise of this argument is, "We know our critics are 100% wrong all the time, so who cares what they have to say anyway. We are the only unbiased ones."
And the third response was from one who defended his method of research and his method of confirming sources. Furthermore, he said that he pursued his graduate education in order to improve his level of scholarship. Nevertheless, that respondent never provided me with his original sources.
There are some misquotes used commonly by separationists, but evidently the religious right has a much more widespread problem. One illustration demonstrates just how widespread the problem is among religious right lay historians. When David Barton wrote The Myth of Separation he used many secondary sources for the 300 quotes that appeared in his book published in 1989. None of these questionable quotes originated with Barton.
When WallBuilders provided me with that "questionable quote" list, I confronted as many individuals as I could. During this time I provided Rob Boston, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, with the "questionable quote" list in the hope that he would confront some individuals on his side of the fence. Based upon that material, he wrote an article for Church & State titled "Consumer Alert."5
In "Consumer Alert," these words appeared in bold print: "Mything in action: David Barton's 'Questionable Quotes.'" Professor Fritz Detweiler of Adrian College's religion and philosophy department responded to this controversy in his weekly column stating that Barton "made up quotes and attributed them to James Madison, Patrick Henry, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other leading Americans.... Barton's fabricating quotes to serve his purpose is particularly disturbing on two fronts. First, Barton was not content to let the record speak for itself because it didn't say quite what he wanted it to say. Second, the fraudulent construction of quotes poses a particular problem for [historians] seeking to verify their accuracy."
In response to that article, David Barton wrote in WallBuilders' summer 1996 newsletter that "the article, 'Consumer Alert!' is agenda driven. Our honest efforts to clear the 'world's rhetorical rivers,' as we casually stated in the earlier draft, were twisted and misconstrued to sound as if we created the quotes... We regret that the unconfirmed quotations have been circulated over the last century-and-a-half, and WallBuilders acknowledges the errors of using secondary sources for primary historical figures. (These quotes have been purged from our materials wherever possible.)"
In summary, while the religious right has exhibited the lower standard of scholarship, both sides have been guilty of using disputed quotes. However, after my eye-opening experience, I am inclined to believe that many of the leaders in my camp will contin ue to use these questionable quotes even after being corrected. Why will many persist? One strong possibility is that they don't want to admit to their followers that they have been guilty of using unauthentic quotes for fear many would lose faith in their leadership. The following illustration is taken from a letter dated January 14, 1997 from Kent Harker, and used with his permission:
"For my theistic life, some cracks in the dike began when my pastor, in one of his sermons, quoted from Pravda. Pastor's sermon centered on the Satanic menace of Soviet communism.... In the Pravda article, the Soviet authors attacked the Boy Scouts as a paramilitary organization whose sole purpose was to build future rabid battalions for the US Army. The tenor of the article was almost farcical. Little did I know just how accurate that misgiving would prove.
"After the meeting I approached Pastor and asked for the reference to the Pravda issue. The 'reproduced, translated' article had come from a church publication. I secured a copy of it. The reference was that the piece had been reprinted from an article in Boy's Life, the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America. That set off an alarm: why not the date and page from Pravda?
"I wrote to the editor of Boy's Life and received a most interesting reply. He said that the alleged Pravda article had been repeated by two US senators in major speeches. He had seen it reproduced in many Christian and conservative publications, including that of the John Birch Society. The article from the Boy's Life was a reprint of a parody on the Boy Scouts from MAD Magazine! The editor congratulated me for my determination to find the source and said that, incredibly, I was the only person to ask for the reference.
"All this had taken a couple of weeks. I took the letter from the editor and went to Pastor. I gave it to him without comment. I was absolutely stunned at his response. He said that even though Pravda might not have published the piece, the c ontent was consistent with Soviet propaganda about the US and so it would change nothing in his sermon.
"I could not speak for several seconds. I told him that I thought he had a deep obligation to his parishioners to uphold the truth. I said that the only option he had would be to stand before the congregation and tell the truth, recanting the malarkey. What he said then will be forever etched in my consciousness:
"'Brother Harker, the congregation must have faith in its pastor. The members must have faith in the integrity of the church publication and their editors. What is important is the spirit of our message, not the details. And I ask you not to discuss this matter with other parishioners lest you cause injury to the faith. I would consider it a serious breach of confidence if you go against my counsel.'"
Kent Harker's pastor handled the correction very, very badly, but I am afraid he is not alone. Proverbs 19:25 rightly states, "...rebuke a discerning man, and he will gain knowledge." Of all people, we in the religious right should practice this Biblical principle. Let's react well to correction and stop misquoting the Founders!
Everette Hatcher lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.
N O T E S
1. Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1995, p.B-9.
2. Oxford University Press, 1989.
3. They Never Said It! pp. 126-127.
4. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1835.
5. July /August 1996.