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This July 4th, Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley took to Twitter and quoted founding father Patrick Henry. According to Hawley, Henry told the world that “(i) it cannot be stressed too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religious, but by Christians; not in religions, but in the Gospel of Jesus Christ”.
This immediately led to a lot of unhappiness on Twitter because Henry, although a devout Anglican, never said this.
One might expect Hawley to have absorbed this reality and graciously acknowledged his mistake. After all, he is a human being and can presumably be embarrassed. He majored in history at Stanford and then received a law degree from Yale. He has just written a book called “Motherhood”, which tells us that being a man is “living the truth, speaking the truth and living according to the truth, always”. The first word in his Twitter bio is “Christian,” and the ninth commandment is “you shall not bear false witness.”
But you would wait for this in vain. Expecting basic honesty from Hawley is like expecting an armadillo to fly an F-14. You will invariably be disappointed.
Let’s take a quick tour of the basic facts here and then speculate on their meaning.
Seth Cotlar, professor of United States history at Willamette University, unearthed the origins of Henry’s spurious quote. The words first appeared in 1956 in a magazine called The Virginian, not attributed to Henry, but as the publication’s own gloss on “the spoken and written words of our noble founders.” To give you an idea of where The Virginian came from, Cotlar points who challenged politicians to tell the plain truth “that the mainspring of the conspiracy to miscegenate white America is found in the powerful and wealthy Jewish organizations.”
It is unclear how the words of The Virginian morphed into Henry’s words and then made the journey into Hawley’s mind. They appeared in a 1989 book called “The Myth of Separation.” Then, in 2001, a representative of the Maryland Republican Party entered “a sermon given by Dr. Richard Fredericks of Damascus Road Community Church” into the congressional record, and the sermon attributed the words to Henry. That sermon appears to have subsequently been widely disseminated via email and now appears in many nooks and crannies of the Internet.
Beyond Twitter, Hawley was criticized by HuffPost, the Talking Points Memo, the New Republic and the Religion News Service. Most significantly, the editorial board of the Kansas City Star published an editorial titled “Josh Hawley Rings 4th of July Fake Date With Anti-Semitic, White Nationalist Roots.”
I did my part by asking Hawley’s communications director if he was going to correct the fake quote. His only response was: “Relevant tweet thread here to include in his story:”
“I have been told that the releases are primarily triggered by the connection between the Bible and the American foundation,” Hawley wrote on Twitter. “For example: ‘The Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the basis of the Redeemer’s mission on earth.’ –John Quincy Adams.
I politely repeated my initial question and got no response.
In other words, all our efforts have not worked. By contrast, Hawley has doubled down. His new efforts have the advantage of using actual quotes, though they have the disadvantage of quoting non-founding fathers who spoke long after the American Revolution.
This is distressing, if you are the type of person who still has a faint hope that powerful people care about reality. It’s worth going over some of the reasons Hawley’s lack of interest in the truth is especially funny and/or horrifying.
First, take a look at Hawley’s book, “Masculinity: The Masculine Virtues America Needs.” (This is just a figure of speech; I wrote a review of “Masculinity” and I don’t recommend you take a look at it.) As mentioned above, “Masculinity” informs us that real men must “tell the truth” (Page 192). It also says:
“Today’s popular culture…tells you to find ‘your truth’…Modern liberals say there are no permanent truths, only ‘constructions.'” (Page 28)
“For those of an Epicurean persuasion, (masculinity) impinged on the precious Epicurean right to define their own truth.” (Page 51)
“Self-esteem…will consume your life…You will not risk incurring the wrath of the powers that be by telling the truth.” (Page 121)
“I am grateful for the opportunity (as a US Senator) to learn, serve and hold on to the truth.” (Page 126)
“We don’t tell the truth like we should. We let others down and ourselves.” (Page 162)
There is much more, but you get the gist. Maybe “Manhood” was ghostwritten and Hawley didn’t get to read it.
Then there’s the motto of Yale, the alma mater of Hawley Law School. It is “lux et veritas”, which means “light and truth”. Clearly, this did not make much of an impression on him.
Last but not least is the Bible. Matthew 19: 16-19 says: “One approached, and he said to him: Good Master, what good can I do to have eternal life? … Jesus said, ‘You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness.’”
Of course, what kind of Christian has time for such nonsense? Especially when there are so many important things to tweet.
The meaning of all this is suggestive and quite disturbing. On the one hand, attributing fabricated quotes to illustrious figures of the past is a hallowed tradition in American politics. Al Gore and Ronald Reagan have enthusiastically done so, along with many, many others.
But on the other hand, there’s something new about Hawley’s adamant refusal to acknowledge the facts, combined with his ridicule of “the libs” for caring about them. The Internet has allowed millions of people to verify falsehoods like this instantly, something that could never be done in the past. Had it been possible decades ago, institutions and cultural norms would likely have forced Hawley to correct himself. But the Internet and the self-sustaining cult bubbles it creates have also destroyed the power of those institutions and norms. Donald Trump has exploited this above all, but many ambitious creatures like Hawley are eagerly exploring the path he blazed.
As George Washington said: “If America ever gets to this point, they better watch out.”