Thomas Jefferson’s pledge of unending hostility against all restrictions on the freethinking minds of the people is among my favorite historical quotations, but I can never remember it verbatim. (Usually I use Kevin Daneher’s powerful paraphrasing from Hijacking Catastrophe, in which Daneher).
“On the altar of God, I pledge undying hostility to any government restriction on the free minds of the people.”
As it turns out, about the only part of the above that’s word-for-word accurate is “altar of God.” So I did a search for “ ‘altar of God’ AND ‘Jefferson Memorial’ ” and found the original quote:
“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against all forms of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Jefferson’s promise wraps all the way around the rotunda inside the Jefferson Memorial. Inspiring as it is, the quote has two flaws: “Man” and “God.” I’ll spend a little bit of time on the first, but mostly I plan to focus on the second.
Many today assume Jefferson’s use of the word “man” was meant to refer generically to “the people.” But history shows that the founding fathers were huge proponents of sexism and racism. So were at least the first hundred years of their successors, as women didn’t gain the right to vote until the Twentieth Century. So Daneher and other modern-day proponents of equality are wise to paraphrase that part of the quote. We like to convince ourselves we are a nation built upon principles. But those principles evolved slowly over time (and still have much evolving left to do). Even the radically enlightened white males of the 18th century were ignorant, bigoted jerks by today’s standards. Every generation along the way had to learn and correct the mistakes of those that came before it. That’s why I think it’s important to consider the quote in its historical context, through the lens of Jefferson’s generation, rather than to judge it with a presentist bias.
Speaking of presentism, this brings me to my second issue with the Jefferson inscription—the use of the word “God.” This, too, gets skewed by 21st century people, either because they’re confused about historical contexts or just because they prefer to see the past through their own contemporary interpretations.
My Google search for “altar of God” AND “Jefferson Memorial” unearthed heaps of these confused individuals—specifically, mainstream Christians who presume the term “God” had the same meaning to the founding fathers as it does to them.
A Christian Scavenger Hunt in Washington D.C.
There is no way you can go to our nation’s capital and continue to argue that this great country was not founded as a specifically Christian nation. A year ago, I might have been swayed by the “America is not a Christian nation”argument, but no more.
One year ago we traveled to Washington D.C. and saw for ourselves that just the opposite was true.
It was there that I began to take notice that the references to God were many and frequent. In fact, every speech quoted by the Founding Fathers, every letter they wrote and now in every monument, engraved in stone are their words continuing to profess their faith in a good and providential God.
Honoring God was obviously a high priority in their lives and in creating this great experiment called America. I say obviously because their words began jumping out at me. I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and an awareness of God’s sovereignty in allowing this country to be established in His name.
For many, God and country go together like cheese and wine. It’s one thing to make vague claims about some generic god who loves some generic “US.” But to insert Jesus into specific events in America’s past is unacceptable, as is the movement to embed Him into our official national history. Darby’s blog shows how quickly God trumps the Founding Fathers when the two face off in Christians’ minds. If we believe a revolution was sponsored by a deity so powerful He could impregnate woman without even having sex with them, then who the hell cares George Washington about Thomas Jefferson? We don’t need to know about the Gettysburg–much less the purpose of the asterisk next to the “so help me God” part of the Presidential Oath. We just need to know that patriotism and Christianity are interchangeable concepts, and that loving one’s country requires loving God.
I don’t much care for that definition of partiotism. I find it not only disingenuous but somewhat disrespectful, that one could be so obsessed with following the trail of Christian breadcrumbs that they can’t be bothered to ponder the meaning of the sites themselves. That’s what it seems like Ms. Darby did when she went to Washington D.C.
Nothing illustrates this better than the photographs she provides for each example. It is not so much that context is “missed”; rather, it is stealthily avoided, and literally cropped out.
Blowing off context and historical nuances is one thing if you’re a high school student hammering out a midterm paper on an obscure topic you don’t care about. But in this case the topic our heritage and sacred memorials. One would think if any topic warranted taking the extra time and effort to get it right, this would be it. Instead, Darby seems to have barreled through the National Mall like a schoolgirl on a field trip scavenger hunt: first kid to locate and photograph one vague religious buzzword per national monument gets a free snow cone.
A few examples of what the blogger came up with:
- Landmark#1: Jefferson Memorial. Photo of the words “THE ALTAR OF GOD ETE…” (no further commentary provided). Buzzword: “God.”
- Landmark#2: Arlington National Cemetery. Photo of the words “SAY A PRAYER FOR OUR COU…” on a cropped and unspecified inscription. Buzzword: “prayer.”
- Landmark#3: Lincoln Memorial. Photo of the buzzwords “UNDER GOD” (no further commentary provided). Buzzword: “God.”
- Landmark#4: The Smithsonian. Photo of part of a John Quincy Adams speech containing the word “HIS CREATOR” on an inscription apparently found somewhere in the Smithsonian. Buzzword: “Creator.”
- Landmark#5: United States Capitol rotunda. Photo of the upper left-hand corner of Robert Walter’s painting, The Embarkation of the Pilgrims. Buzzword: “GODWILLING.”
- Presidential Oath. Photo of the words “SO HELP ME GOD” along with an unclarified asterisk, underneath the blogger’s caption, “In the presidential Oath.”
There were others, but you get the gist. The savvy tourist was able to find a link to God at all of the hallowed sites she visited. She then posted pictures of each spiritual reference alongside captions noting the sacred spot at which she found each of them. In doing so, the blogger does more than just imply some vague link between religion and American history.
By omitting and/or cropping out all further details about each site, its as if she seeks to credit God as the driving force that inspired and enabled the birth of America, as if Jesus Himself was a founding father.
I don’t mean to single out Ms. Darby. Again, she was just one example among many; people who scan our national heritage seeking traces of Jesus Christ, an excuse to reinvent the statues and monuments built to honor mortal men as statues and monuments built of God by God and for God.
There is so much more to discover in Washington D.C. than the same old tale about a guy on a cross.
That said, D.C.’s usefulness as a faithful historical account of our nation’s founding is limited. That’s because all of the key events in our nation’s formative years occurred before the District of Columbia even existed. The shrines in D.C. represent how humans chose to retell and remember these events; they should not be interpreted as objective data or primary sources (as one would treat, for instance, the Declaration of Independence). This is true even of the direct quotes inscribed in the marble, which were selected by 20th century Americans based on what was deemed most important many generations later.
This isn’t meant as an argument for or against God’s existence, just as a reminder that Jesus wasn’t the only one to ever sacrifice on your behalf.
Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?
People who want to believe that the founding fathers were Christians will have no trouble rounding up quotes in which they referenced “God.” But it’s a stretch to take these quotes as proof that the US was founded as a Christian nation. For one, it is just as easy for nonbelievers to assemble collections in which the same men are railing against Him. (Examples here). Moreover, 18th century deism was a far cry from 21st century Christianity. This proves the word “God” was in their vocabularies, just as it is for Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and countless others who don’t believe Jesus died for their faith sins. Members of al-Qaeda praise God before every suicide terrorist attack. Surely Christians do not wish to take credit for every pursuit in the name of a “God.”
Before closing, let us rescue some of the original meanings that were distorted above.
Revisiting the Revisions
Revisiting Landmark #1: Jefferson Memorial (built in 1938)
The complete inscription reads:
“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against all forms of tyranny over the mind of man.”
This quotation was described in greater depth in the Introduction (see above).
Revisiting Landmark #2: The Lincoln Memorial (built in 1922)
The inscription on the Lincoln Memorial is from the Gettysburg Address. Here is the full speech:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Of all the historical speeches that often get hijacked by religious people with revisionist agendas, this is one of the ones that bugs me the most. Darby’s cropping of the Lincoln Memorial inscription is typical of the way many Christians tend to frame historical events. For some, the fact that Abraham Lincoln says the word “God” in the final sentence is more relevant than Gettysburg’s legacy as the Civil War’s turning point and deadliest battle, lending credence to Lincolns prediction that, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…”
Revisiting Landmark #3: Arlington National Cemetery
The full quote reads:
“Aeschylus wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our despair, against our will comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’ What we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not hatred, what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness but love and wisdom and compassion towards one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black. Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: ‘To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.’ Let us dedicate ourselves to that and say a prayer for our country and our people.” Indianapolis, 1968
Once again, the part that jumped out to the Christian blogger was the “say a prayer” part. She reports that this item, containing the word prayer, is located somewhere in Arlington National Cemetery. But she cleverly the crops “Indianapolis 1968” out of the picture, leaving it up to readers to determine the date and source of the quote, and how exactly it relates to the founding fathers. It is inscribed on the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, located across from his grave in Arlington National Cemetery. It’s an excerpt from a speech he gave on April 4, 1968, in which he broke the news to African-Americans gathered in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated. (Read the entire speech; view photograph of the memorial).
The Presidential Oath: “…So Help Me God*“
Wondering what the asterisk means? The words “so help me God” are not required but optional. [Learn why in the USA Today article entitled, “No Proof Washington Said ‘So Help Me God'”].