About the American Atheists Billboard Misquoting Sarah Palin…

One of the billboards American Atheists just put up in Texas was this one, featuring Sarah Palin:

She’s quoted as saying:

“We should create law based on the God of the Bible”

Just one problem: She never said those exact words. Here’s what she really said:

According to Palin, the recent backlash against the National Day of Prayer is proof that some people are trying to enact a “fundamental transformation of America” and to “revisit and rewrite history” in order to shift the Christian nation away from its spiritual roots.

Palins’s advice: “Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant — they’re quite clear — that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the ten commandments.

No doubt Palin’s intention there was that we *should* base American law on Christian doctrine… but why use quotation marks on the billboard when she never used those words? Why not put that first quotation mark before the word “create” instead?

Dan Merica at CNN noticed this as well and called AA out on it:

In one billboard, a picture of Palin is featured on the left, with a quote attributed to her. “We should create law based on the God of the Bible,” the quote reads. Underneath the graphic is a tag line “GO GODLESS INSTEAD.”

The billboard, however, misquotes Palin. In an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, Palin addressed the growth in American secularism by saying America’s founding fathers “would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments,” not “should.”

Dan brings up the very problem I have here. It’s not that Palin’s comments (or AA’s depiction of them) aren’t worrisome. It’s not that many Republicans don’t want to turn this country into a theocracy.

It’s that we’re supposed to be the truth-tellers, the ones who provide citations so you can double-check that we’re being honest with you. If an atheist group is misquoting someone — even if the intention was the same — it sheds doubt on the whole idea that atheists are the ones who are being honest with you.

We’re not supposed to be the ones who take things out of context. Leave that to the Christians.

It’s not the first time this has happened, either. Back in 2011, the Backyard Skeptics in Orange County, California put up a billboard quoting Thomas Jefferson:

“I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature. It is founded on fables and mythology.” — Thomas Jefferson

That sounds great… but Jefferson never actually said it. Monticello even seconded that skepticism.

After getting rightfully nailed on that, group leader Bruce Gleason was quick to apologize:

He agreed that Monticello was an authoritative source.

“You’re absolutely right,” he said. “I should have done the research before I put my billboard up.”

That’s what Dave Silverman should do, too. Just admit there was a mistake made, apologize to Palin (even if she doesn’t hear it), and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Silverman’s welcome to add that AA did not mislead anybody about Palin’s intentions, but they did indeed misquote her.

Right now, that’s not happening. On Twitter, Dave’s doubling down on the idea of “intention”:

That statement alone supports my side, not his. A Huffington Post headline is not the same as a Sarah Palin soundbyte.

It’s just bad idea to stand ground on this one… you’re not gonna win the battle. And, even worse, you’re giving me a reason to defend Sarah Palin.

Ugh… I need to take a shower or something…

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Mario Strada

    You are right Hemant. We reserve the right to screw up just like anyone else. But we should correct our mistakes, apologize and doing it with a smile on our face.

    Doubling down on a wrong “fact” is wrong. I like Silverman but he should do everyone a favor, apologize and explain how the intention remained the same.

    Plus, correcting the billboard should be rather easy, since it black on white.

  • anniewhoo

    I wonder if this was an honest mistake, or an intentional twist of the quote. Either way, it looks (and is) sloppy. There is no need to twist words to get a quote where Sarah Palin says something ridiculous… you just have to wait five minutes.

  • jdm8

    David Silverman’s tweet put initial quote mark in a different location than it is in the sign, it seems like it’s kind of an admission without admitting anything.

    I’m of two minds about this, Sarah Palin probably would have said that, but she didn’t actually say that. I’d put it down to an error, but not admitting to an error looks bad.

  • Stephen

    This is just nitpicking to me. At worst it’s merely a paraphrase representing exactly the sentiment Palin meant.

  • Rain

    ““would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments,”

    Some of the Ten Commandments are roughly equivalent to some laws, therefore that means all of the Ten Commandments. We can go ahead and go around saying “the Ten Commandments” instead of “a couple of the Ten Commandments”. This has been another episode of incredibly stupid equivocations, brought to you by religion.

  • Duke OfOmnium

    Yeah, but when you place a putative quotation within quotation marks, it shouldn’t be a paraphrase. That’s what the quotation marks mean: that the person said this exact literal thing.

  • http://twitter.com/lisa_ms1 lisa

    I’m sure I will get hounded for this one, but it seems to be a topic as of late… AA reminds me of what Westboro is to christians. American Atheists intentions might be in the right place, but sometimes, I think they cause more harm for Atheism then they do good.

  • Rain

    Yep it just wasn’t a good quote to pick. They should have picked another quote instead of twisting one slightly around to make it sound less awkward-ish.

  • Eric

    It doesn’t say she is being quoted or Sarah Palin said… It’s inferred but the quote has been said – it is a literal quote and she agrees with the literal quote almost saying it herself thus using her image next to the quote is shady but not directly misquoting

  • Tim

    It’s funny because “we SHOULD create” is not quite as strong as “we WOULD create”. It will be fun to hear the verbal backflips she does if she actually tries to complain about being “misquoted”.

  • toth

    I don’t see a significant difference between “if we did what the founders wanted, we would make laws based on the bible” and “we should make laws based on the bible”, particularly given the deification of the founders (by everybody, but particularly the right). I don’t think a couple of letters makes all the difference.

  • Daniel_JM

    You are drawing an implicit comparisons between AA and Westboro? Yeah I think you might get hounded for that….

  • Baby_Raptor

    Please find a better group to compare them to. I’m not arguing that they’re perfect, or that you’re not entitled to your opinion of them, but Westboro? When has AA ever done anything remotely approaching the horror and WTFery of “Thank god for dead soldiers” or “God hates fags” or…Well, you get the idea.

    They can be assholes sometimes, but they’re nowhere near the Phelps cult.

  • Bob Becker

    Fix it. Just fix it. No whing etc. about intent or its being mostly right. Just fix it.

  • Bob Becker

    Fix it. Just fix it. No whing etc. about intent or its being mostly right. Just fix it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1353603101 Joe Montoto

    If it’s not an exact quote, just fix it and move on. All you’re doing is allowing the theists to fog the real issue, which is to stress that an objective, secular government of law is the only real way.

  • DougI

    Woulda shoulda.

  • Houndentenor

    In the modern news/blog world, the mistake becomes the story. Then it’s all about mean old atheists (or whoever) twisting the words of (in this case) Sarah Palin. If you want to get a point across you have to avoid these mistakes. it may well have been a careless mistake but it defeats the whole purpose if all people are talking about is the mistake and not the message of the ad.

    (I’m not saying this to beat up on anyone. I’ve just seen this scenario play out too many times. Let this be a lesson for us all.)

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    So what is the fix?

    We [should] create law based on the God of the Bible

    Doesn’t seem like anyone disagrees with capturing her intent, but the full quote to get the context is too long. Would pointing out that that one word wasn’t exactly the one she used be sufficient?

    btw, Silverman has further clarified that if Palin has a problem with it, he’ll gladly fix it.

    To those who believe Sarah Palin was misquoted (as reported on CNN @danmerica ): Ms. Palin uged America to “”Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant — they’re quite clear — that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the ten commandments.”
    So while I admit that the would ‘should’ should technically not be inside the quote, the meaning was correct. So correct, in fact, that Huffington Post used the word “should” in the title. However, for the record, If Ms. Palin tells us that she has been misrepresented, that she does not believe American laws SHOULD be based on the bible and the ten Commandments, We will happily replace the board at our expense.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/10/sarah-palin-american-law_n_569922.html

  • Zanthador64

    So they should fix it. Big deal. In the meantime, you said it yourself, OP, that the two-letter difference between “should” and “would” is negligible, seeing as she most likely meant should instead of would.

    Also, is anyone really gonna get that bent out of shape that a person who though Paul Revere was going to “warn the British” is being misquoted? Especially when her basic point is still accurately represented? Yeah, sure.

  • Matthew

    Meh. This would bother me if it were a misrepresentation of context, but it’s not. It’s a billboard. You start using brackets to indicate a paraphrase, and you lose people. More importantly, if changing her quote is wrong, then the converse — quoting her accurately — would be right. However, if he had accurately quoted her: “we would create law based on the God of the Bible,” that would have been out of context and misleading. That would imply that it would be her intention or plans were she elected, when what she was saying was actually about what the founding fathers intended, not her. Quoting her accurately would have been unfair. Paraphrasing her was the right thing to do, and I can’t fault them for not putting brackets on a billboard instead of quotation marks.

  • Pseudonym

    I don’t think that anyone buys that Westboro’s intentions are in the right place. For the kids, perhaps. For those in charge, no.

    The bottom line is that atheists don’t have better access to the truth than anyone else. To err is human.

  • Achron Timeless

    “Always fact check quotes you find on the internet” – Abraham Lincoln

  • Rain

    He’s pretending like we don’t understand that the gist of the quote is right. He’s pretending like he doesn’t understand that it’s a matter of precision with the exact words. That’s pure ego right there.

  • geru

    Even in it’s right form it seems a bit quote mined, looking at the full context. C’mon guys, you can do better than this.

  • http://twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

    Someone’s going to vandalize it anyway. Can’t some atheist crawl up there with a can of spray paint and fix it first?

  • LesterBallard

    Could have been easily prevented. I can imagine the group gleefully rubbing their hands together and cackling “oooh, this will hit ‘em so hard” while no one fact checks.

  • Patrick

    Well, at least we’re not distracted by bad typography or design in this one.

  • AxeGrrl

    Why is there any nitpicking about this? If there’s anything inaccurate about the quote, then own up to the mistake, apologize for the misquote, and fix it.

    And why the hell was there a mistake in the first place? it’s a fucking billboard. Do your fact-checking before you put the damn thing up.

    It doesn’t matter if the misquote is the ‘same in content’ to something she actually said ~ if it’s presented as a direct quote it sure as hell better be one.

    This isn’t rocket science.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Sarah Palin was NOT Misquoted: American Law Should Be ‘Based On The God Of The Bible’ http://huff.to/ak0qvZ @danmerica Note the title!

    Mr. Silverman: You seem to media savvy not to realize that headlines are usually not written by the writer of an article, let alone by by a person quoted in the article.

  • AxeGrrl

    In the modern news/blog world, the mistake becomes the story. Then it’s all about mean old atheists (or whoever) twisting the words of (in this case) Sarah Palin. If you want to get a point across you have to avoid these mistakes.


  • r.holmgren

    You think that was an accidental misquote? Not a chance.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1357724115 Dennis Lurvey

    I dont see the difference, one word? the fact is we have people running our country that believe the earth is 6k years old, snakes talk, and someone who was dead, came alive. some on the science committee even. how can we move forward when our govt believes so backward??

  • atheos

    Always, always go with a sound bite and make sure it’s contextual! This is going to hurt us. You can’t attack Fox News and their “friends” without experiencing a backlash of rhetoric especially if you make counterfactual claims. I can hear Bill O’reilly now… Despite his own counterfactual claim that “Christianity is not a religion”.

  • Witchgawd

    Close enough for gubment work. It’s not like religious groups have never misquoted atheists or anyone else for that matter. They do it everyday on FAUX news and on billboards and everywhere else. Billboards are not the way to get a message across anyways. Stupid fight is a stupid fight.

  • Witchgawd

    I thought that was Socrates?

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson
  • Mike

    “When in doubt, attribute the quote to Mark Twain.” –Mark Twain