Putting religious messages on billboards has been around probably as long as billboards have been and recently even Atheist’s have gotten into the mix with some of their own so on the surface the latest campaign by a group in Florida is hardly news. The group, NoSeparation.org will be placing ads on 10 different billboards in several Florida counties forwarding their belief that the Constitutional separation between church and state is a lie.
The Judeo-Christian foundation that the Founding Fathers established when America began is the reason that this country has prospered for 200-plus years,” said [Terry] Kemple, president and sole employee of the local Community Issues Council, which paid for the Web site.
So what messages does Kemple use to make his claim?
The billboards showcase quotes from early American leaders like John Adams, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin. Most of the quotes portray a national need for Christian governance.
Others carry the same message but with fictional attribution, as with one billboard citing George Washington for the quote, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”
That’s right a fictional quote attributed to George Washington that Kemple justifies by saying that based on Washington’s other writings, could have been said by our first President.
Of course being someone that was unsure of Washington’s actual religious leanings and not quick to take a wingnut at his word in these situations, I did some quick research and found this that might give us some insight on Washington and his actual beliefs.
Washington was not anti-religion. Washington was not uninterested in religion. He was a military commander who struggled to motivate raw troops in the French and Indian War. He recognized that recruiting the militia in the western part of Virginia required accommodating the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, Baptists, and Dutch Reformed members in officially-Anglican Virginia. He was aware that religious beliefs were a fundamental part of the lives of his peers and of his soldiers. He knew that a moral basis for the American Revolution and the creation of a new society would motivate Americans to support his initiatives – and he knew that he would receive more support if he avoided discriminating against specific religious beliefs.
In the Revolutionary War, Washington supported troops selecting their own chaplains (such as the Universalist John Murray) while trying to avoid the development of factions within the army. Religion offered him moral leverage to instill discipline, reduce theft, deter desertion, and minimize other rambunctious behaviors that upset local residents. It was logical for Washington to invoke the name of the Divine, but it may have been motivated more by a desire for improving life on earth rather than dealing with life after death.
Washington understood the distinction between morality and religion, and between toleration of differences and full religious liberty. Washington’s replies to messages from Jews and Swedenborgians showed he was not merely accepting the differences of religion, tolerating those who had not chosen the correct path. Instead, he endorsed what Jefferson would later define as a “wall of separation between church and state.”
Washington used generic terms with his public requests for divine assistance, to the extent that his personal denomination must be classified as “unknown.” That vagueness has not stopped Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Unitarian Universalists from claiming him as a member, and has invited others to identity him as a Deist. Washington was a man dedicated to creating national unity, not an exclusionist seeking to identify and select those with correct beliefs for reward in this life or the next. It would have been inconsistent for him to seek to blend the westerners and the Tidewater residents, the Yankees from the north and the slave-owning planters from the South, into one national union – while at the same time supporting narrow religious tests for officeholders, or advocating the superiority of one religious sect over another.
It might just be me but it sounds like Kemple might be stretching the truth a bit on Washington’s perceived beliefs on religion but I guess stretching the truth (ok, outright lying) just works better when you don’t have reality on your side. It is ironic though that the same 1st Amendment that Kemple has such issues with is the same one that allows him to forward his fictional quotes from our founders on those Florida billboards…
Oh and speaking of our founding fathers and their beliefs on the subject, one founder I noticed was missing from the group’s campaign, namely Thomas Jefferson.
Why would they not use this quote as proof of our founding father’s thoughts on this subject?
The rights [to religious freedom] are of the natural rights of mankind, and… if any act shall be… passed to repeal [an act granting those rights] or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.” –Thomas Jefferson: Statute for Religious Freedom, 1779. (*) ME 2:303, Papers 2:546
Or this one?
Among the most inestimable of our blessings, also, is that… of liberty to worship our Creator in the way we think most agreeable to His will; a liberty deemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved by our experience to be its best support.” –Thomas Jefferson: Reply to John Thomas et al., 1807. ME 16:291
Maybe they are saving them for their next billboard campaign…