Last month the St. Petersburg Times reported on yet another attempt to enlist the politicians of the late 1700s in today’s culture wars, and yet another misrepresentation:
The billboards showcase quotes from early American leaders like John Adams, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin. Most of the quotes portray a national need for Christian governance.Kemple apparently feels no embarrassment about repeating a lie because, he says, Washington “could have said those exact words.” Never mind that he didn’t—according to Kemple, he could have, and that’s just as good. Entertainingly, Kemple has cast himself as a truthteller, insisting that the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state is a “lie.”
Others carry the same message but with fictional attribution, as with one billboard citing George Washington for the quote, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”
“I don’t believe there’s a document in Washington’s handwriting that has those words in that specific form,” [billboard renter Terry] Kemple said. “However, if you look at Washington’s quotes, including his farewell address, about the place of religion in the political sphere, there’s no question he could have said those exact words.”
Earlier in the month, Kemple organized a “tea party” protest, another attempt to coopt the U.S. of A.’s founding symbolism for his causes. More often he’s demanded that governments adopt his narrow religious positions on social issues such as forbidding same-sex marriage (he’s on his second marriage, but doesn’t want other couples to have their first), and making schools teach creationism but not sex education.
The Washington misquotation that Kemple tried to justify isn’t a recent coinage, having appeared in an 1893 book titled A Lawyer’s Examination of the Bible, written by Howard H. Russell and published by an evangelical press. It was debunked in 1990 in They Never Said It, by Paul F. Boller, Jr.
Boller went on to offer what he believed was one of the rare statements by Washington on the Bible, from an early draft of his first inaugural address:
The blessed Religion revealed in the word of God will remain an eternal and awful monument to prove that the best Institutions may be abused by human depravity; and that they may even, in some instances be made subservient to the vilest of purposes.Though referring to “the word of God,” that passage actually looks more like a warning that people can use organized religion as an excuse for bigotry and other wrongdoing—not what Kemple’s group would choose to advertise, I suspect.
What’s more, as Jon Rowe pointed out, that passage was probably drafted by Washington’s aide David Humphreys. The President threw out the whole thing and started over, never mentioning the Bible during his speech. Or, for that matter, in his other political statements. He could have, but he didn’t.