In about two weeks, the Family Research Council will hold its “Values Voter Summit,” an annual event that has become the largest gathering of the Religious Right in the country.
To get attendees pumped up about the event (and to spur donations), FRC President Tony Perkins has been sending out letters thanking people for signing up. Unfortunately for Perkins, much of the three-paragraph letter consists of a quote by James Madison lauding the Ten Commandments as the foundation of an orderly society – something Madison never said.
This phony quote has been knocking around on the web for years. Although it still appears on some far-right websites, it was definitively debunked a long time ago. David Barton, the Religious Right’s much-loved pseudo-historian, featured it in one of his early books but later conceded that the quote was false – in 1996.
The FRC should be embarrassed for spreading stuff like this around years after it was exposed as spurious. Sadly, this is indicative of the quality of the “research” this group does – and I’m certain it won’t be the last lie attendees of the Summit hear this year.
This error could have been avoided with a few seconds of research. Anyone who enters “James Madison Ten Commandments” into Google will note that the first several results debunk the quote. My favorite is this one from Snopes.com that links to two old Americans United pages.
The Snopes page links to an old AU press release from April 4, 2001, when we criticized TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Regent University for using the same phony quote.
The AU press release notes that in 1993, the curators of the Madison Papers at the University of Virginia were asked if they could verify this quote. They could not.
“We did not find anything in our files remotely like the sentiment expressed in the extract you sent us,” curators John Stagg and David Mattern wrote. “In addition, the idea is inconsistent with everything we know about Madison's views on religion and government, views which he expressed time and time again in public and in private.”
I remember this incident well because I played a role (a modest one to be sure) in the final debunking of the quote that occurred later. The heavy lifting was done by Robert S. Alley, a professor of humanities at the University of Richmond. Alley, who died in 2006, was a legitimate Madison scholar and author of the excellent tome James Madison on Religious Liberty.
Bob was also an ally of Americans United who served on our Board of Trustees for several years. He was an erudite and engaging man, and I had the good fortune of being able to turn to him whenever I had a question about church-state history. In the early 1990s, Bob and I kept seeing the Madison Ten Commandments quote – but it was never sourced. That made us suspicious.
Bob always had a lot of irons in the fire, but I prodded him to take on the project of definitively debunking the quote. He jumped right in and published his findings in a paper titled “Public Education and the Public Good” in the William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Summer 1995.
“Proving that a quotation does not exist is a daunting task,” Alley wrote. “If you cannot find it in any extant manuscripts or collections of Madison’s works, just how does one prove it will not turn up in someone’s attic tomorrow? Of course you cannot. That is why the Madison editors were careful in how they phrased their response. But, after all, it is incumbent solely upon the perpetrators of myth to prove it by at least one citation. This they cannot do. Their style is not revisionism, it is anti-historical.” (You can download a copy of the full paper here.)
What’s especially frustrating about this is that Madison was probably the strongest advocate of separation of church and state among the founders. He’s no ally of the Religious Right, and they have a lot of nerve trying to claim him.
In colonial Virginia, Madison helped lead the fight to end the state church. His “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” is a list of 15 reasons why church and state must be separate, each one a rebuke to the Religious Right.
During Madison’s presidency, he vetoed two bills, one that would have given a church in Washington, D.C., a symbolic charter to care for the poor and another that would have granted some surplus federal land to a church. In both cases, Madison insisted that the measures violated the First Amendment. (Madison ought to know, since he helped write it.)
Madison opposed chaplains in Congress and in the military. Although he issued prayer proclamations during the War of 1812 after congressional prodding, he later concluded that his actions had been unconstitutional.
Madison also knew that church-state separation was good for both institutions. Reflecting on that epic battle in Virginia years after the fact, Madison argued that disestablishment had been a boon to religious groups.
“[T]he number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the state,” he said.
In case you’re wondering, Madison wrote that in a letter to Robert Walsh dated March 2, 1819. Unlike the phony quotes employed by Perkins and the gang at the FRC, you can look that one up.
P.S. See more great – and authentic – Madison quotes here.