Working through CRAAP: Founded on Secular Values

Note: This is NOT a fact check, it is a display of my own thought process. It is up to YOU to decide whether something is true or not.

Last week I introduced you to  the CRAAP (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose) Test – a tool that can be used against information items from across the political spectrum. It’s time to provide another example.

I recently collected this image on Facebook:

founders_religion

Since I always see red flags in quotes without citations, I thought this might be a good candidate for the CRAAP test.

Currency: The timeliness of the information.  When was the information published or posted?

Like so many Facebook photos, we have no idea at all when the photo was created. We have no real idea of when the quotes were said because no citations. Though since the people quoted are Founders of the nation, we can safely assume late 1700s – mid 1800s.

Relevance: The importance of the information for your needs.  Does the information relate to your topic or answer your question?

It’s not currently relevant to me. But it could become incredible relevant if Congress begins debating statutes or a Constitutional Amendment from the frame of “The United States is and always has been a Christian nation.”

Authority: The source of the information.  What are the author’s credentials or organizational affiliations?  Is the author qualified to write on the topic?

No authorship is available. I found the photo on the page of a friend, they got it from someone else who put the photo on their timeline without any attribution. So it’s a photo – floating in space.

Accuracy: The reliability, truthfulness and correctness of the content.  Is the information supported by evidence?  Can you verify any of the information in another source or from personal knowledge?  Does the language or tone seem unbiased and free of emotion?  Are there spelling, grammar or typographical errors?

This picture has two components – An opinion “The US was not founded as a Christian nation. The US was founded upon secular values.” and purported quotes from four founders:

Thomas Jefferson – “Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man.”

Benjamin Franklin – “I have found Christian dogma unintelligible”

John Adams (Weren’t there two?) – “This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it.”

George Washington – “The Constitution is the guide which I will never abandon.”

The implication is that if the quotes are true, the opinion must be true. While I personally endorse a secular government, I don’t necessarily buy that one liners on one side or the other by themselves validate an opinion. But it would be worth it to know whether these Founders said these things. If they did, the sources the quotes came from might provide additional context and either strengthen or weaken the opinion the author of this picture wants us to have.

My first thought would be to check the collected works and papers of these individuals – assuming I found them in a library or archives.

Thomas Jefferson (“Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man.”) – I found his papers at the Library of Congress. They were mostly digitized and searchable. I did not find the exact quote, but maybe the entire collection isn’t digitized. I did find the following quote from an 1803 letter to Benjamin Rush:

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.

Source: Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803, with Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, with Copies; Partial Transcription Available, The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes. Federal Edition. Collected and Edited by Paul Leicester Ford. http://www.loc.gov/resource/mtj1.028_0191_0199

While not as strong as the original quote, Jefferson clearly had problems with the conventional Christianity of his time. read the entire letter for more.

Benjamin Franklin (“I have found Christian dogma unintelligible.”) – A searchable version of Benjamin Franklin’s known papers are available through the National Archives Founders Online project. I did not find the quote there. I was a bit more curious about this quote, so I searched the general internet. That mostly turned up other people trying to find this exact quote, so I’m thinking it doesn’t exist in that exact form.

After examining a few more Google results, I came across this article:

Religion And Early Politics: Benjamin Franklin and His Religious Beliefs
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine Volume XXXVII, Number 4 – Fall 2011 http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/pa-heritage/religion-early-politics-benjamin-franklin.html

That article contained this quote from a letter sent to the President of Yale in 1790:

“Here is my Creed,” Franklin wrote to Stiles. “I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this … As for Jesus of Nazareth … I think the system of Morals and Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw … but I have … some Doubts to his Divinity; though’ it is a Question I do not dogmatism upon, having never studied it, and think it is needless to busy myself with it now, where I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.”

Is this close enough to the original quote? You decide. I think it shows he wasn’t hostile to religion but says nothing about its role in government.

I’m willing to trust Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine because it is published by the  Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which has credibility to comment on historical figures from Pennsylvania.

John Adams  (“This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it.”) – First, we have to acknowledge that there are two John Adams who were prominent in US History. Here I am assuming we’re speaking of the 2nd President of the United States. John Adams’ papers are also available at the National Archives’ Founders Online.

Not only did I not find this quote in his papers, I found a quote that points the other way (bolding mine) – though it is no support for the US being a Christian nation:

I Shall esteem you the more for having become a Christian on a large Scale. Bigotry superstition and Enthusiasm on religious subjects I have long Since Sett at Defyance. I have attended public Worship in all Countries and with all Sects and believe them all much better than no religion, though I have not thought myself obliged to believe all I heard. Religion I hold to be essential to Morals; I never read of an irreligious Character in Greek or Roman History, nor in any other History, nor have I known one in Life, who was not a Rascal. Name one if you can living or dead. I shall be very glad to receive your Creed, as you give me Encouragement to hope.

Source: “From John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 18 April 1808,” Founders Online,National Archives, last modified October 5, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5238.

George Washington (“The Constitution is the guide which I will never abandon.”) – Unsurprisingly, the Founders Online project at the National Archives also has Washington’s papers.

I couldn’t find the quote in Washington’s papers. But I also threw this one out to the general internet and found that Mt. Vernon, an official museum and library dedicated to George Washington, accepts this quote and attributes it to a July 28, 1795 to the Boston Selectmen. This quote is somehow tied to President Washington’s acceptance of a copy of Acts of Congress, though the page does not make this reason clear. That Mt. Vernon is a legitimate historical site seems documented well enough in their About page.

My verdict on accuracy – Out of the four quotes, one is actually accurate, three do not appear to exist as stated. Of those, alternate quotes from Jefferson and Franklin appear to support the gist of the unfindable quotes. There seems to be evidence that Adams believed (at least at one time) the opposite of what the unfindable quote suggest.

Moral of the story – don’t ever believe quotes as written, especially when no attribution is offered, ok?

Purpose: The reason the information exists.  Is its purpose to inform, teach, sell, entertain or persuade?  Is the information fact, opinion or propaganda?  Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional or personal biases?

This is definitely an effort to persuade. Some people may call it propaganda, others won’t. Without authorship, one can’t tell what biases are on display here. I know many people of faith who absolutely do not want the government making laws based on holy scripture of any faith. If such a person put this picture together, they probably don’t have an anti-religious bias, but they might have a liberal bias. If an atheist put this together, there’s likely an anti-religious bias, but we don’t really know their politics.

Conclusion: Not something I’d share, even though I agree with the sentiments. But that’s my analysis.

Also, I’m not going to analyze any more items with multiple quotes. That was a lot of work.

========End of CRAAP Test ====

If you’re interested in reading more about the various disputes on Church and State in the early US Republic, consider reading:

Church, F. Forrester. 2007. So help me God: the founding fathers and the first great battle over church and state. Orlando: Harcourt.

Find in a Library – http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/85484978

Read Reviews on GoodReads – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/391669.So_Help_Me_God

The book is well cited and indexed and the author shows how almost all of the major Founders could be seen as on one side of the issue or the other. Read it, check out the primary material behind it if you wish and make your own choices.

 

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One Response to Working through CRAAP: Founded on Secular Values

  1. Kris says:

    I appreciated how you used this method to find out more about these ‘quotes’. I’ve been almost jaundiced in my following of political phrases. A bad taste in the mouth of the reader.

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