Sen. Josh Hawley went looking for some patriotic and unmistakably right-wing sentiment to tweet out on the Fourth of July, and came up with a stirring quote from Patrick Henry, of “give me liberty or give me death” fame, about the centrality of Christianity in the founding of the United States. Or anyway, Hawley attributed the quote to Henry. That was false.
In reality, the words came from a 1956 article about Henry in “The Virginian,” a white nationalist publication. Hawley is a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School who clerked on the Supreme Court and in general has a reputation as one of the Republican Party’s most brilliant minds. One way or another, he’s telling on himself with this.
“It 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,” Hawley claimed Henry had said. “For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”
Here’s context from historian Seth Cotlar:
Patrick Henry was himself a slaveholder, so it’s a name with a giant asterisk if you want to celebrate freedom. But taking words from this specific source and attributing them to Henry is a whole other issue. It’s one that hints at where Hawley might be getting his news and memes: the places where white nationalist misinformation about Founding Fathers is circulating.
Hawley’s claim about Christianity as an originating force in the United States is also worth looking at. Even if the quote had been real, Hawley was making a specific and very political choice in the wake of the Supreme Court decision giving Christian business owners license to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people to claim that freedom in this country springs from Christianity.
Steve Benen notes that Hawley isn’t just misrepresenting Patrick Henry here:
The Constitution is a secular document that created a secular government. Thomas Jefferson — in an actual quote — wrote in 1802 that our First Amendment built “a wall of separation between church and state.” In 1797, John Adams agreed: “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”
But Hawley, the man who gave a raised fist of solidarity to the Jan. 6 mob and then went on to try to fashion himself as a guru of masculinity, isn’t interested in any such inconvenient realities. He’s a case in point of how extremism and white nationalism in today’s Republican Party aren’t confined to the likes of Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar. And his version of American history has to be rejected for the false vision it is on every level.