Of Proof Texts and Patriotism

In my hometown newspaper this Fourth of July, two of the eight pages in Section A were devoted to full-page ads quoting the Founding Fathers on the role of religion in America. The first, sponsored by the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, quoted James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others on the importance of keeping religion and politics separate. The second, sponsored by the Hobby Lobby corporation, quoted James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others on the importance of acknowledging God’s hand in the creation of the American Republic.

I call this the “Let’s-quote-the-founders-out-of-context-and-let-confirmation-bais-take-care-of-the-rest Game.” Americans have been playing it long enough that the basic moves should be familiar to everybody. It is absurdly easy to play because our Founding Fathers wrote so much—thousands of volumes of speeches, correspondence, and persuasive essays. Partisans have been mining their writings for two hundred years to find pithy quotes to support just about any political position. And all of this has been complied, sorted, indexed, and posted to the Internet–ready to fill the rhetorical quiver of anybody with a strong opinion and a smart phone.

Among theologians and biblical scholars, this practice of selecting brief, non-contextualized quotations from the Bible and stringing them together to form arguments is called “proof-texting,” and it is generally considered the opposite of “proving stuff.” In my most recent book, That’s Not What They Meant!, I examine in some detail the proof-text phenomenon as it applies to America’s Founding Fathers—looking at dozens of quotations from across the political spectrum. In almost every case, the proof text—whether from the left or the right—gives an inaccurate, incomplete, or partial view of the opinion of any particular Founding Father.

When proof-texts are combined and presented as some kind of unified Founding point of view–as they are in both of the advertisements pictured above–they invariably get almost everything wrong. There are a number of reasons for this, but here are some of the most important:

    • The Founders were different people. And they did not get along with each other very well. They fought about many of the same things that we fight about today. Pages of proof texts that pretend to present “what the Founding Fathers believed” almost always end up taking one side of an open argument among the Founders and presenting it as if it were a settled opinion of the day.
    • Most of the Founders lived long lives. My freshman term papers are very different from blog posts today. I have changed a lot. So did the Founders, many of whom began writing seriously in their late teens and continued into their 80s and 90s.
    • The writings that we have from the Founders come from many different genres. John Adams spoke differently in his letters to his closest friends than he did in his public speeches or his newspaper editorials. Often, the Founders wrote under pseudonyms precisely so that they could express different opinions than those they had taken in public.
    • Historical context matters. People do not speak in proof-text quotes. People speak and write to specific audiences to say specific things for specific reasons—all of which forms part of the meaning of the words. When you ignore all of that context and simply present an excerpted quotation, you are almost certain to miss what was really said.

The narrative of America’s Founding is an amazing story populated by remarkable men and women who were also actual human beings. As IVN columnist Edwin Brown writes, their views on religion in public life—like their views on just about everything else—were complicated, inconsistent, nuanced, and conflicted. It is very important for us to understand what they had to say. But Googling is not the same thing as understanding, and cutting and pasting is not the same thing as doing history. Our country, and its Founders, deserve more attention than that.