By Andrew L. Seidel
Freedom From Religion Foundation
Last week, the Freedom From Religion Foundation put up our Bill of Rights display in the Texas State Capitol in Austin. We jumped through all the hoops and were granted permission to put up the display. That did not sit well with Texas Governor Greg Abbott who ordered today that the display be removed. It was.
Abbott wrote a letter to explain the removal. In it, he calls our Bill of Rights display “tasteless,” a “spiteful message … intentionally designed to belittle and offend” and charges that it’s “far from promoting morals and the general welfare.” He even likened the Bill of Rights display to “a photograph of a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine.” All that vitriol, from looking at three founding fathers, the Statue of Liberty, and the Bill of Rights. One wonders how such disrespect for the Bill of Rights comports with Abbott’s oaths of office to uphold that sacred document.
There is an unpleasant irony to the government removing a display that promotes free speech and features the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment issues will likely be resolved in court, not here, so we’ll leave them for now.
In perhaps the greatest stroke of poetic justice I’ve ever seen, Abbott claims that our “exhibit promotes ignorance and falsehood” and cites 17 lines of a George Washington quote—a quote that is fraudulent.
Yes, you read that correctly. Abbott accused our exhibit of “promoting ignorance and falsehood” then quoted, at length, erroneous history to support his position. The quote comes from a fabricated prayer journal, misattributed to Washington.
Frank Grizzard, an editor of the George Washington Papers at the University of Virginia, wrote of the book from which Abbott pulled the quote:
“Tens of thousands of genuine Washington manuscripts have survived to the present, including many from the youthful Washington, and even a cursory comparison of the prayer book with a genuine Washington manuscript reveals that they are not the same handwriting.” Grizzard, The Ways of Providence: Religion & George Washington, page 51 (Mariner, 2005).
Gizzard’s book on the subject even provides examples of the fraudulent handwriting and Washington’s own—they look nothing alike. Id. at 53-55.
Not only are the prayers not in Washington’s handwriting, they were not composed by Washington himself as Abbott claims. To borrow from Gizzard, “Both claims are patently false.” Id. at 51. That prayer book had been “rejected by the Smithsonian Institute as having no value” and even at the time it first surfaced, “others continued to challenge its authenticity.” Id. at 52.
Other historians, such as John Fea, chair of the History Department at Messiah College and author of Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, agree that this prayer book is not Washington’s:
“It is also far too pious for Washington. In fact, … George Washington only referenced Jesus Christ twice in all his extant writings and neither of them were in a prayer. This commissioner was not praying the words of George Washington.”
But that is the difference between historians and Abbott. Historians are driven by truth, Abbott is driven by an agenda: to promote his personal religion.
See you in court, Governor Abbott.
(H/t to Fred Edwords, who already did some of this research.)
FFRF is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping state and church separate and educating about nontheism. We depend on member support, please join today.