There are few people that I personally despise more than canonical critics, but Christian Nationites are almost certainly among them. David Barton and his gang of loony liars have done more than a small part in undermining American values and destroying the fabric of this once great nation--and continue to today, thanks to the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools, the late D. James Kennedy, and other unscrupulous types more concerned about making a buck off the gullible than about the survival of the nation that brought them up. One of the tricks of their nefarious trade is the invention of fake quotations from the Founding Fathers designed to make them look like modern Christian Nationites. Many of them have been discredited; others lurk in the limbo of the unknown.
It is not always appreciated that the Founding Fathers were a diverse lot with differing opinions on exactly how the new nation ought to be put together. Some of them favored having a state religion, as all respectable nations had in their time. Others--Jefferson, Washington, Madison, for example--favored keeping religion out of government altogether. This was the winning faction.
Among the famous Founding Fathers on the wrong side of that particular issue was Patrick Henry, slave-owner and the reputed author of the words "Give me liberty, or give me death." He undoubtedly did write some pretty crazy stuff about church-state relations, but--did he say, as the Christian Nationites claim:
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!
Okay, it's tripe, but that's not really the point. Some people are obviously impressed with it. A quick check of Google Books reveals its popularity. One book is listed as having this quotation in 1994, another in 1996, and still one more in 2000. Starting with 2002, however, it begins to take off. Three books quote it in 2002, four in 2003, six in 2004, and seventeen in 2005. While that was a high point, ten books quote it in 2006, eleven in 2007, and two this year.
Well, you can't argue with success, right? If so many authors use it, well, then Patrick Henry must have said it. The market has spoken, as Stephen Colbert would say.
Still, there is one oddity at least. Nobody seems to have heard of this saying before 1994. Now Google books is a neat little tool, but it is far from infallible. However, if Patrick Henry had really said, or written, or muttered this little piece of garbage, you'd think it would show up somewhere. And in fact Patrick Henry scholars have searched his recorded words, and found--nothing.
Even though it doesn't show up in the Google books search, the saying apparently first appeared (at least as Patrick Henry's) in The Myth of Separation by David Barton in 1988. Barton himself has since repudiated it, describing it as "unconfirmed" in his WallBuilder's website. He does hold out hope that it will turn out to be genuine, however, citing some absolutely irrelevant quotations by and about Patrick Henry, a cheesy trick that used to be exploited by the brave Cold War liars who promulgated fake quotations attributed to Lenin, Stalin, and other Communist leaders. (Anybody else remember Stormer's None Dare Call It Treason?) Humorously Barton goes on to make the suggestion (without giving the slightest evidence to support it) that "there is a possibility that the unconfirmed quote came from Henry's uncle, the Reverend Patrick Henry. We find no record of the Reverend's letters or writings. Therefore," he suggests, "until more definitive documentation can be presented, please avoid the words in question."
Need I remind the Myth of Separation author that the burden of proof is always on the person who puts forth a quotation as genuine? Cite your source, damn it--cite it. That's all you have to do. The works of the Founding Fathers are not even that hard come by, for the most part. You usually can find them in multi-volume sets of speeches and letters and publications and all like that there. If you got took by a bum secondary source--well, them are the breaks. At least if you've cited it, people will know who to blame.
In this case, however, it should have been clear that something was off in the brew. The word "religionists"--it ain't right. The word's been around since the seventeenth century, and our patriot could have used it--but not in the sense it's used here. That's pure twentieth-century, not Patrick Henry's era in the least. In his time a religionist was a fanatic, somebody obsessed with religion. The author of this quotation, however, is using it in a strange generic sense, meaning apparently people of different religions joined together, or something of that sort.
Of course the answer to this riddle is simple--these words were not written or spoken by Patrick Henry. Nor did they come from Patrick Henry's uncle (a ridiculous idea, by the way). Here is the quotation in context:
"I have now disposed of all my property to my family. There is one thing more I wish I could give them, and that is the Christian Religion. If they had that and I had not given them one shilling they would have been rich; and if they had not that and I had given them all the world, they would be poor."
Patrick Henry, Virginia,
"There is an insidious campaign of false propaganda being waged today, to the effect that our country is not a Christian country but a religious one--that it was not founded on Christianity but on freedom of religion.
"It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded not by 'religionists' but by Christians--not on religion but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity and freedom of worship here.
"In the spoken and written words of our noble founders and forefathers, we find symbolic expressions of their Christian faith. The above quotation from the will of Patrick Henry is a notable example."
I got this from the September 1956 issue of The American Mercury (p. 134) where it appears as a page filler. Their source: the April 1956 issue of The Virginian, a short-lived segregationist rag.
So dig this, all you dupes and pawns who mindlessly copied the crap that David Barton fed you. These jejune and insipid words you have enshrined in your books and on your websites are not pearls of great price delivered by one of America's patriots. They were written by some anonymous racist hack, the dregs of the era of McCarthy and George Wallace and the Ku Klux Klan. Enjoy the feast--and I hope you choke on it.