15 November 2014

Are We Bored Yet?



I
 am in a foul mood this bleak Saturday in the 12014th year of the Holocene Era. It’s cold out here, and icy winds knock down boughs and powerlines outside. Inside it’s not exactly toasty, but it’s quite warm, thank you, and I suppose I ought to count my blessings.
And one of those blessings is this page on a website called Reneland, “Where The Truth About Religion Is Told, Life In Los Alamos Is Remembered and Crimes Against Women Are Acknowledged”. Reneland sounds like a fun place—so how do I explain this inane entry, over two years old now, which makes some extraordinary claims about US religious history.
The author gets off to a rocky start by confusing the foundation of the nation (in the late eighteenth century) with the coming of the first settlers (early seventeenth century). There is a considerable difference. The first settlers did not found a nation. They set up colonies. The work of founding the nation belonged to a later generation.
She goes on to say “The freedom our founding fathers were in search of was the freedom to not be persecuted for their religious beliefs by the Catholic Church. By religious beliefs I mean Christianity, or better yet Protestantism.” This is bizarre. Puritans (for example) fled religious persecution by Anglicans, Catholics fled religious persecution by Huguenots, as well as various protestants fleeing Catholic persecution.
She then randomly flails away at a straw man who claims that the founders were not Christian—a belief held by nobody that I am aware of. (But the world is large, and there are many false beliefs. Nobody of any significance believes this anyway.) Yes, she is absolutely correct that the founders were white Christian men. And so?
But the ludicrous frosting on top of this half-baked cake is the following statement, made apparently in all seriousness:
There was no idea of any other non Christian religion, no religion, pagan or Jewish religion to any documents written when the forming of our government was happening.
I freely admit that I have no idea of what Reneland was trying to say, but the founders were quite aware of a variety of nonChristian religions, and wrote about them. George Washington, father of the country, explicitly included Judaism in the religious beliefs that were held by right, not by mere toleration. Other writers mentioned Hinduism and Islam as well. The idea that non-Christian religions were missing from “any documents written when the forming of our government was happening” is, to use one of her favorite words, ignorance.
And now come the golden sprinkles on this festive offering. “Let me give you some examples in the form of quotes by our founding fathers” Reneland writes. And of course you, my long-time readers (if any there be) know what is coming. A rich offering of fake quotes, misattributions, and other bizarrenesses. Let’s go:
First up, and by far the best of the offerings, are two quotations from John Adams. (Or from my viewpoint the worst, as they are legitimate. More or less.) The first:
I must not write a word to you about politics because you are a woman.
I actually don’t know why this one is here, or what the point of including it was. It comes from a letter to his wife Abigail (11 February 1779), and is part of an explanation of why he is avoiding a discussion of politics:
I must not write a word to you about politics, because you are a woman.
What an offence have I committed! A woman!
I shall soon make it up. I think women better than men, in general, and I know, that you can keep a secret as well as any man whatever. But the world don’t know this. Therefore if I were to write my sentiments to you, and the letter should be caught and hitched into a newspaper, the world would say, I was not to be trusted with a secret.
Of course Adams had learned about the danger of intercepted letters, to his cost. And then we have this one, a familiar out-of-context quotation from Adams’ 11 October 1798 reply to the officers of the first brigade of the third division of the Massachusetts militia, slightly misquoted:
Our Constitution was made only for the [sic] moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
And now the real fun begins. Reneland lists three quotations attributed to George Washington, of which one is legitimate. The first is an over-familiar fake:
It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.
As I’ve pointed out in the past, it first appeared in this form in 1893, and rests only on the word of a lawyer who never met Washington. Believe it if you like, but there’s no reason to think it authentic. This is White Queen country here. Our next is a lightly-mangled excerpt from Washington's Farewell Address:
Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that natural morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Here is the authentic passage:
Let it be simply asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.
It’s close, at least. The third and last is a ring-tailed doozy:
We are persuaded that good Christians will always be good citizens, and that where righteousness prevails among individuals the nation will be great and happy. Thus while just government protects all in their religious rights, true religion affords to government its surest support.
As I’ve pointed out before, these are not Washington’s words in the least; they are taken from a letter written to him—let me reiterate to him—by a group of religious leaders. Washington is no more responsible for them than for any other random assemblage of words directed to him in his long and illustrious life.
Next comes a John Quincy Adams quotation, or rather, a slight misquotation:
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.
I’ve written about this one before. It’s basically legitimate, though it would be better to quote it directly from Adams, rather than from John Wingate Thornton. Also, John Quincy Adams isn’t really a founder.
Nor is James K. Polk, to whom this next mishmash is attributed:
The Bible is the rock on which this Republic rests. Under the benign act providence of almighty God the representatives of the states and of the people are again brought together to deliberate for the public good.
The first sentence is something usually attributed to Andrew Jackson, though on no very good authority. (Need I point out that neither is Jackson a founder?) The rest is legitimate, and is the opening of his fourth annual message to congress, 5 December 1848. Except, of course, the words “benign act” should be the word “benignant”.
And last, my favorite punching-bag, the ultra-fake Patrick Henry “quotation” written in 1956, long after the fiery orator’s death:
It cannot be emphasized enough to strongly or to often that this great nation was founded not by religionists but by Christians, not on religions but on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It’s misquoted, but that’s the least of its problems. It is ignorance of the rankest variety to believe that Patrick Henry, or anybody of his time for that matter, could have written this—this piece of idiocy.
And it’s really too bad because, honestly, Reneland is not a bad place to visit. Just don’t drink the Kool-aid.

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