The graphic you see here was posted by Hobby Lobby on its corporate web site in celebration of the Supreme Court inexplicably deciding that corporations are people and that corporations have religious beliefs, thereby allowing the corporation to deny its employees whatever forms of birth control (and, presumably, any other medical product or procedure) the owners claim violate the corporations’ religious beliefs. Take a closer look at the quotations.
The quote from Thomas Jefferson isn’t from Thomas Jefferson. The quote belongs to James Madison.
“Well, sure, OK,” you might be thinking, “the attribution may be wrong, but still, it’s a Founding Father making a powerful statement in favor of governments being subservient to God. I mean, heck, the point is well made.” Except, no, it isn’t.
The quote — in its unedited form — says exactly the opposite of what Hobby Lobby tried to make it say. In fact, it directly contradicts what the SCOTUS Gang o’ Five said in the Hobby Lobby decision.
The quote comes from Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, which he wrote to express his strong objection to a “Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” introduced to the Virginia Legislature by Patrick Henry. Madison was opposing the mixing of government and religion. Madison’s intent is clear when you read the full quotation:
“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: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.”
Jefferson, by the way, joked about the conflict with Henry in a letter to Madison when he wrote, “What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his death.” And isn’t it odd that Hobby Lobby would try to attach its theocratic position to Jefferson, who is credited with coining the phrase “separation of church and state”?
Hobby Lobby has since corrected the attribution of the quote on its web site, but still uses its truncated form to mislead people into thinking Madison would have supported its mixing of religion and politics — which is, really, the bigger “mistake” of the two. For emphasis, let’s let Madison expound on his view of religions and their roles in government:
What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not.
In fact, Madison and Jefferson together wrote and got passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty of 1786, which ensured not just a separation of church and state but complete freedom of conscience for believers and non-believers alike.”
I’m not sure how responsible we can hold Hobby Lobby for these (ahem) errors, because misquoting pillars of American history seems to be a malady that’s reached epidemic levels on the Right.
When Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was giving a victory speech after his election, he tried to invoke Jefferson, too, this time as a proponent of Paul’s libertarian ideals: “Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘That government is best that governs least.’” Of course, Jefferson never wrote those words. They first appear in print in 1837, penned by the editor of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, and later made popular by Henry David Thoreau.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman (R-Ind.) both asserted, in speeches on the House floor, that Jefferson said, ‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.’” Of course, Jefferson never wrote those words, either. (They’re a short-hand form of a much longer and rather inelegant quote from John Philpot Curran.)
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) held up a sign and read a quote he said was from Jefferson: “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work to give to those who would not.” This, Coburn said, was Jefferson’s warning about the perils of a welfare state. Of course, Jefferson never wrote those words. (They are from a book published in 1986.)
Isn’t odd that part of the Right would go to such lengths to attach itself to Jefferson, while another part of the Right tries to cut him out of American history? Well, perhaps not, as the Right has been engaged in its own civil war for some time.
Of course, Jefferson isn’t the only Founding Father to be misquoted by the Right. George Washington gets abused, too.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT) tried and failed, in a speech in the Senate, to attach one of his pro-gun arguments to Washington: “President George Washington said that the right to keep and bear arms is ‘The most effectual means of preserving peace.'” Alas, no. Washington actually wrote something quite different: “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) also tried and failed to invoke Washington when he claimed the first president said “Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” As you might expect at this point, Washington never said any such thing.
This should come as no surprise, because even as far back as Washington’s second term his conservative enemies were lying about what he’d said. At one point, they even circulated fake letters trying to convince people that Washington had expressed admiration for Britain’s King George III. Washington ignored the smear at first, because he thought people knew him well enough to know the quotes were fake. He was wrong; people believed the lies.
Sometimes, the Right’s apparently genetic inability to make accurate attribution creates unintentional humor — such as when Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) held up his pocket copy of the Constitution and pledged to “stand here with our Founding Fathers, who wrote in the pre-amble: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident …'” and when Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX) claimed that God “wrote the Constitution.”
The Right is so fond of conjuring up fake quotes that they sometimes build entire campaigns around them, sometimes beating the same dead horse years after it’s returned to dust. The 2012 Republican convention was fueled in part — and with help from their friends at Fox — on the “We built this!” theme, which was a gross and obvious perversion of a quote from President Obama.* The lie about Al Gore saying he invented the Internet has achieved the status of a sacred myth on the Right. (*Some of us relished the irony of the dishonest theme being used at a convention held in an arena built with public funds and using public funds for security.)
And before you rush to invoke the “both sides do it” defense, let’s put that to rest with the other Rightwing fibs. Even the Right-leaning PolitiFact can’t spin its way into a false equivalency:
The Center For Media Affairs (CFMA) at George Mason University found that PolitiFact rated Republican claims as false three times more often than Democratic claims. Not only do Republicans lie more often, but Democrats are more truthful. By a 2 to 1 margin (22%-11%) PolitiFact rated Democratic statements as completely true. The CFMA also found that, “A majority of Democratic statements (54%) were rated as mostly or entirely true, compared to only 18% of Republican statements. Conversely, a majority of Republican statements (52%) were rated as mostly or entirely false, compared to only 24% of Democratic statements
So we shouldn’t be surprised when the conservative owners of a corporation celebrate the imposition of conservative religious beliefs through corporations by a conservative Supreme Court majority by misquoting a Founding Father — and then perpetuating the lie when called on it. Such behavior seems to be a big part of conservative identity. I don’t think they can help it.