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The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Study Guide: Problematical Religious Right Quotes And Arguments

Citing quotes to prove a point is tricky business. This study presents some pointers both for using quotes and for evaluating them when someone else uses them.

by Jim Allison


A list of flawed quotes.

What about quotations that appear to oppose separation?

Misquoting by the Religious Right

Did Supreme Court justice Joseph Story ever say that, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, there was near universal consensus that christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state?

Some other problematical quotes:

(1). National Prayer

President Thomas Jefferson, March 4, 1805, offered A National Prayer for Peace:

"Almighty God, Who has given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favor and glad to do Thy will. Bless our land with honorable ministry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion, from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitude brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endow with Thy spirit of wisdom those to whom in Thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that through obedience to Thy law, we may show forth Thy praise among the nations of the earth. In time of prosperity fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in Thee to fail; all of which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen"

The problem with the above is that it isn't true. March 4, 1805 was the date of Jefferson's Second Inaugural Address and there is no such prayer included in it. This "prayer" shows up on a number of religious web sites on line, and is either attributed to Thomas Jefferson, with no other information or as above "Thomas Jefferson, March 4, 1805". Nowhere is there a complete valid cite given. You can find his Second Inaugural Address at Thomas Jefferson, Second Inaugural Address, Monday, March 4, 1805


(2). "The God who gave us life gave us liberty

"The God who gave us life gave us liberty... Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction... That these liberties are the gift of God? The bible is the cornerstone for American liberty." -Thomas Jefferson

There Are Actually Two Versions of This. The mere fact that there are two versions of it is a good indication it has problems.

Version #1

"The God who gave us life gave us liberty... Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction... That these liberties are the gift of God? The bible is the cornerstone for American liberty." -Thomas Jefferson

Version #2

"And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever." Thomas Jefferson

Beginning with the first version:

First problem is that this quote is not cited, i.e., its origin isn't stated--probably for the reason that it doesn't appear in Thomas Jefferson's works as quoted. If you break it into pieces, you can find some of the pieces in Jefferson's works.

[1]"The God who gave us life gave us liberty. . . [2]Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction. . . That these liberties are the gift of God? [3]The bible is the cornerstone for American liberty." -Thomas Jefferson

Part [1]

We can find the first phrase in Jefferson's 1774 publication to the English king, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Notice that by extracting only part of Jefferson's entire phrase, the manufacturer of this invalid quote, gives it a different slant than Jefferson's original. Also notice that the rest of the problematic quotation isn't found in the document.

. . .This, sire, is the advice of your great American council, on the observance of which may perhaps depend your felicity and future fame, and the preservation of that harmony which alone can continue both to Great Britain and America the reciprocal advantages of their connection. It is neither our wish, nor our interest, to separate from her. We are willing, on our part, to sacrifice every thing which reason can ask to the restoration of that tranquillity for which all must wish. On their part, let them be ready to establish union and a generous plan. Let them name their terms, but let them be just. Accept of every commercial preference it is in our power to give for such things as we can raise for their use, or they make for ours. But let them not think to exclude us from going to other markets to dispose of those commodities which they cannot use, or to supply those wants which they cannot supply. Still less let it be proposed that our properties within our own territories shall be taxed or regulated by any power on earth but our own. The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them. This, sire, is our last, our determined resolution; and that you will be pleased to interpose with that efficacy which your earnest endeavours may ensure to procure redress of these our great grievances, to quiet the minds of your subjects in British America, against any apprehensions of future encroachment, to establish fraternal love and harmony through the whole empire, and that these may continue to the latest ages of time, is the fervent prayer of all British America! . . .

Source of Document:

University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826. A Summary View of the Rights of British America, p. 122, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library

Part [2]

[1]"The God who gave us life gave us liberty. . . [2]Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction. . . That these liberties are the gift of God? [3]The bible is the cornerstone for American liberty." -Thomas Jefferson

Part [2], the middle section, does come from a bona fide document written by Jefferson: Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII, "Manners". Jefferson was speaking of the evils of slavery, not the virtues of religious morality. Here is the paragraph from which the quotation (bolded) is taken:

Excerpt From: Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson

. . .The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. And with what execrations should the statesman be loaded who, permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part and the amor patriae of the other. For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labor for another: in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature, contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavors to the evanishment of the human race or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him. With the morals of the people, their industry is also destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labor for himself who can make another labor for him. This is so true that, of the proprietors of slaves, a very small proportion are ever seen to labor. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure, when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of god? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice can not sleep forever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! . . .

Source of Information

American Studies at the University of Virginia website Notes on The State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson

Part [3]

"[1]The God who gave us life gave us liberty. . . [2]Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction. . . That these liberties are the gift of God? [3] The bible is the cornerstone for American liberty." -Thomas Jefferson

This final phrase is totally imaginary! It does not appear in A Summary View of the Rights of British America, nor in Notes on The State of Virginia. A web search for the quotation shows it only as a part of this invalid quotation. It does not appear anywhere on the University of Virginia site on Jefferson's works. Moreover, the phrase is completely inconsistent with Jefferson's views about the Bible.


Now for the second version

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever. Thomas Jefferson

The above is a valid quotation as shown in the Notes on the State of Virginia extract above. The problem with it is that it is often used to make some sort of point with regards to Jefferson's religious beliefs--usually to claim that Jefferson was a orthodox Christian. Quoters fail to explain that the quotation comes from a section of Notes on The State of Virginia in which Jefferson was discussing slavery in Virginia and has nothing to do with Jefferson's religious beliefs..

Source of Document:

University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center Notes on The State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson

.

David Barton's Misquotes

For an indepth look at how David Barton misquotes many founding period sources, see: The Barton Chronicles

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