“Since Madison, who wrote the Constitution, said good government is dependent on the Ten Commandments, isn’t it obvious that the Constitution is profoundly Judeo-Christian?”
By Ed Buckner
I’ve heard this, and similar questions, many times over the years. Since the “infamous” Pledge decision ruling that the 1954 law inserting “Under God” is unconstitutional, I’ve heard a renewal of this nonsense. There is a good answer to the question, but that doesn’t mean it’s all that simple. It’s related to another false claim the Christian nation mythologists love to make: the idea that even if the framers didn’t label the U.S. government as Christian, they did base all our laws and procedures on the Bible and especially, on the Ten Commandments. Despite frequent, confident repetition, this is demonstrably false, and I addressed this larger question in another essay (with some help from Thomas Jefferson). But the main issue for now is an apparently fabricated quotation from Madison. On page 120 of Christina nation mythologist David Barton's book The Myth of Separation, Barton “quotes” James Madison as saying:
We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments.
Barton gave, in a footnote, two sources for the quotation: Harold K. Lane, Liberty! Cry Liberty! (Boston: Lamb and Lamb Tractarian Society, 1939), pp. 32-33, and Fredrick Nyneyer, First Principles in Morality and Economics: Neighborly Love and Ricardo's Law of Association (South Holland Libertarian Press, 1958), pp. 31.
Now, I deny that Mr. Madison is likely to have ever written or said that, regardless of how many sources are cited. But how can I know, and how can I prove to any doubting Thomases that I’m right? The answer, of course, is that I can’t know, and I can’t prove it. The only way anyone could “prove” a quote is inaccurate is by having a complete, verified transcript of everything a person ever said or wrote—practically speaking, an impossibility. But that doesn’t mean we should accept every quote anyone attributes to someone famous.
As thoughtful, skeptical, secular humanists, our only reasonable course, when provided with a quote (no matter whose side it supports) is to ask critical questions. Is it consistent with other things we know the man or woman wrote or said? Is there any specific written evidence from a primary source for the quote? If so, is the context in which it is found consistent with the apparent meaning of the quote? To return to the alleged Madison quote, no such quote has ever been found among any of James Madison’s writings. None of the biographers of Madison, past or present, have ever run across such a quote, and most if not all would love to know where this false quote originated. Apparently, David Barton did not check the work of the secondary sources he quotes. (He has since admitted that the quote, like a number of others he’s cited and that others have repeated, cannot be confirmed.) Robert Alley, a distinguished historian at the University of Richmond, has written of his unsuccessful attempt to track down the origin of the Madison quote and about the implausibility of it as a Madison statement. (See “Public Education and the Public Good,” William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Summer 1995, pp. 316-318.)
Similar things can be said of another widely circulated quote: “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”—George Washington (according, at one time, to David Barton). But no one can find this quote in Washington’s papers, nor is it consistent with everything else we know about Washington. We should be on guard not only against overzealous theists who fabricate (or accept as genuine) false quotes, but also against overzealous freethinkers and secular humanists who accept too readily some quote we want to believe is accurate even if the evidence for it is weak or nonexistent.
©2002 Ed Buckner, Council for Secular Humanism, www.secularhumanism.org
Anyone who wants access to hundreds of quotations in this field, along with the exact place we found the quotations, can use Quotations That Support the Separation of State and Church, 2 Edition, edited by Edward M. Buckner and Michael E. Buckner (my son). For ordering details, write to Freethought Press, The Atlanta Freethought Society, 1170 Grimes Bridge Road, Suite 500, Roswell GA 30075.