This July 4, Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley got on Twitter and quoted founding father Patrick Henry. According to Hawley, Henry told the world that “[i]t cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
This immediately generated vast Twitter unhappiness because Henry, while a devout Anglican, never said this.
You might hope Hawley would have absorbed this reality and graciously acknowledged his error. After all, he’s a human being and so presumably can feel shame. He was a history major at Stanford and then got a law degree at Yale. He just wrote a book called “Manhood,” which tells us that to be a man is “to live the truth, to speak the truth, and to live by the truth, always.” The first word in his Twitter bio is “Christian,” and the Ninth Commandment is “thou shalt not bear false witness.”
But you’d hope for this in vain. Expecting basic honesty from Hawley is like expecting an armadillo to fly an F-14. You’re invariably going to be disappointed.
Let’s take a quick cruise through the basic facts here and then speculate about their significance.
Seth Cotlar, a professor of U.S. history at Willamette University, dug up the origins of the spurious Henry 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 a sense of where The Virginian was coming from, Cotlar points out that it dared politicians to speak the plain truth “that the mainspring of the conspiracy to mongrelize white America lies in the powerful, wealthy Jewish organizations.”
How the words of The Virginian transmogrified into the words of Henry and then made the journey into Hawley’s mind is unclear. They appeared in a 1989 book called “The Myth of Separation.” Then, in 2001, a GOP representative from Maryland entered “a sermon given by Dr. Richard Fredericks of the Damascus Road Community Church” into the congressional record, and the sermon attributed the words to Henry. That sermon seems to have subsequently spread widely via email and now appears in many nooks and crannies of the internet.
Beyond Twitter, Hawley was criticized by HuffPost, Talking Points Memo, the New Republic, and Religion News Service. Most significantly, the Kansas City Star editorial board ran an editorial headlined “Josh Hawley Rings in July 4 With Fake Quote With Antisemitic, White Nationalist Roots.”
I did my part by asking Hawley’s communications director whether he was going to correct the false quote. Her only response was, “Relevant tweet thread here to include in your story:”
“I’m told the libs are major triggered by the connection between the Bible and the American Founding,” wrote Hawley on Twitter. “For example: ‘The Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation 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 had no effect. On the contrary, Hawley has doubled down. His new efforts have the advantage of using real quotes, though with the disadvantage of quoting non-Founding Fathers speaking long after the American Revolution.
This is distressing, if you’re the kind of person who still has some faint hope that powerful people might care about reality. It’s worth going through some of the reasons that Hawley’s lack of interest in the truth is especially funny and/or horrifying.
First, take a look at Hawley’s book, “Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs.” (This is just a figure of speech; I wrote a review of “Manhood” and do not recommend that you take a look at it.) As mentioned above, “Manhood” informs us that real men must “speak 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 ‘constructs.’” (Page 28)
“For those of an Epicurean persuasion, [masculinity] impinged on the treasured Epicurean right to define your own truth.” (Page 51)
“Self-regard … will consume your life … You won’t risk incurring the wrath of the powers that be by speaking the truth.” (Page 121)
“I am thankful for the opportunity [as a U.S. senator] — to learn, to serve, and to hold fast to the truth.” (Page 126)
“We don’t tell the truth as we ought to. We disappoint others and ourselves.” (Page 162)
There’s a lot more, but you get the gist. Maybe “Manhood” was ghostwritten and Hawley hasn’t gotten around to reading it.
Then there’s the motto of Yale, Hawley’s law school alma mater. It’s “lux et veritas,” meaning “light and truth.” Clearly, this didn’t make much of an impression on him.
Last but hopefully not least, there’s the Bible. Matthew 19:16-19 reads, “One came and said unto him, ‘Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?’ … Jesus said, ‘Thou shalt do no murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness.’”
Of course, what kind of Christian has time for that nonsense? Especially when there are so many important things to tweet.
The significance of all this is suggestive and quite disturbing. On the one hand, attributing made-up quotes to illustrious figures of the past is a hallowed tradition in American politics. Al Gore and Ronald Reagan have done it enthusiastically, along with many, many others.
But on the other, there’s something that feels new about Hawley’s adamantine refusal to recognize facts, combined with his ridicule of “the libs” for caring about them. The internet has enabled the teeming millions to fact-check falsehoods like this instantly, something that could never be done in the past. If it had been possible decades ago, institutions and cultural norms would probably have forced Hawley to correct himself. But the internet and the self-sustaining cult-like bubbles it creates have also obliterated the power of those institutions and norms. Donald Trump has exploited this most of all, but many ambitious creatures like Hawley are eagerly exploring the trail he blazed.
As George Washington said, “If America ever gets to this point, you guys better watch the fuck out.”