We don’t trust in god, or Hobby Lobby: How accurate was Hobby Lobby’s July 4th Ad?

The Christian trinket-purveyor Hobby Lobby places religious holiday ads in national newspapers reaching in some cases more than 47 million readers. Hobby Lobby’s July 4, 2013 ad features quotes from the founders scattered around huge font screaming, “In God We Trust.” The quotes are meant to give the false impression that the U.S. is a Christian nation and that our nation “trusts in God.” But, just like Hobby Lobby’s god, the quotes aren’t very trustworthy. They are wildly inaccurate in some cases.

The misrepresentations range from the mild, such as capitalizing “His” to refer to a Christian god when Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson actually wrote “his” to refer to a deistic god, to the outrageous, such as omitting entire sentences without notifying the reader, combining quotes from multiple sources into one quote, omitting thousands of words with an ellipsis, and completely mischaracterizing quotes, speakers and Supreme Court cases.

FFRF has launched an amazing, interactive webpage with full breakdown of the ad. On the page, users can see a side-by-side comparison of Hobby Lobby’s quote and the original quote, read notes on history and context of the quote, and view original source documents.

More egregious examples of Hobby Lobby’s disinformation are referenced below. But Hobby Lobby uses 22 quotes in their ad, so be sure to check out the new webpage fully. About 90% of the historical quotes (excluding the two from the bible) contained changes, inaccuracies, unindicated tampering, or some editing to alter meaning or context.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation countered Hobby Lobby’s ad with one of its own. Not only was FFRF’s ad visually stunning, but FFRF’s research staff went to great lengths to ensure that quotes were accurate and perfectly consistent with the Founder’s words. FFRF located original scans of the documents written by the founders themselves and linked to those documents on its ad source page. FFRF also linked to whole documents from which it quoted, encouraging everyone to read them fully. For instance, we quoted James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, urging readers, “if you haven’t read this concise masterpiece, please do so now.”

By contrast, Hobby Lobby’s source page was somewhat meager, never giving any links or further references. That shouldn’t be a surprise because further investigation of Hobby Lobby’s ad reveals serious misrepresentations.

Hobby Lobby shamelessly quotes Madison’s Memorial out of context to falsely give the impression that Madison said people must be religious to be a part of society. But a fair reading of the Memorial shows that Madison was arguing for a complete separation of state and church. Madison explains that beliefs are not only a right, but “wholly exempt” from the power of “civil government” because they are the product of “reason,” “evidence,” and “minds.” The government cannot legislate reason, belief or thought. Interestingly, Madison’s prohibition against thought-crime countermands the 10th Commandment of Hobby Lobby’s god.

Hobby Lobby quotes a translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America that de Tocqueville himself criticized. Hobby Lobby quotes him as saying that “Americans combine the notions of Christianity and liberty…” The accurate translation is that “Americans so completely confuse [or confound] Christianity with liberty…”  The context of the quote makes it clear that de Tocqueville was not complimenting this confusion; he was actually lamenting the mistreatment of an atheist in an American court.  FFRF works every day to stand up for the rights of atheists and nonbelievers, a mission of which de Tocqueville approved, according to his quote.

Hobby Lobby mischaracterizes two Supreme Court cases. In one, the Supreme Court upheld a provision in the freethinker Stephen Girard’s last will and testament that left $2 million (about $43 million today, who says nonbelievers aren’t generous!) to start a school for educating orphans, so long as “no ecclesiastic, missionary, and minister” held any position in the school. Hobby Lobby mischaracterizes the Court’s decision as encouraging the use of the bible in public schools. Hobby Lobby quotes a speech by Patrick Henry for which no reliable text or transcript exists.

Hobby Lobby quotes Ben Franklin’s prayer proposal at the Constitutional Convention but neglects to mention the result of that proposal, recorded in Franklin’s own hand: “The [Constitutional] Convention, except three or four persons, thought Prayers unnecessary.”

Hobby Lobby quotes Justice Joseph Story, but merges the quote from two separate documents Story drafted 28 years apart. Story was a Christian, but also a strict separationist. He wrote of the First Amendment’s “higher objective: to cut off for ever every pretence of any alliance between church and state in the national government.” Hobby Lobby mangles a quote from a House report on abolishing congressional chaplains, which in turn had mangled a quote from Justice Story. Hobby Lobby quotes student handbooks from two private religious universities as though they had some relevance to our founding.

Through creative editing Hobby Lobby takes comments that are critical of religion and makes them seem complimentary. Hobby Lobby quotes Achille Murat, a “consistent atheist” and “intrepid doubter,” according to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Murat was critical of religion, referring to its “gross absurdities,” “ridiculous practices,” and calling Presbyterians “bilious children, austere disciples of the gloomy Calvin, [who] have inherited all his gall and venom, and do not scruple to invest the Divinity with their spirit of vengeance and Satanic wickedness.” Hobby Lobby edited some of Murat’s quotes to make him seem a friend of religion when he was actually criticizing its racist and sexist goals:

Hobby Lobby version:

“The great number of religious societies existing in the United States is truly surprising: there are some of them for everything; for instance, societies to distribute the Bible; to distribute tracts; to encourage religious journals; to convert, civilize, educate;…to take care of their widows and orphans; to preach, extend, purify, preserve, reform the faith; to build chapels, endow congregations, support seminaries…to establish Sunday schools…to prevent drunkenness, etc.”

Murat’s original:

“The great number of religious societies existing in the United States is truly surprising: there are some of them for everything; for instance, societies to distribute the Bible; to distribute tracts; to encourage religious journals; to convert, civilize, educate the savages; to marry the preachers, to take care of their widows and orphans; to preach, extend, purify, preserve, reform the faith; to build chapels, endow congregations, support seminaries, catechise and convert sailors, negroes, and loose women; to establish Sunday schools where young ladies teach reading and the catechism to little rogues, male and female; to prevent drunkenness, etc. This last society in particular is very singular, and very much extended. The members engage never to drink any distilled liquor, nor to permit its use in their families; but nothing hinders them from drinking wine. In that they mistake the Creator for a bad chemist.”

Check out the webpage for a full look at this quote (only partially reproduced here) and more on Achille Murat.

Hobby Lobby quotes “Jedediah Morse: Patriot and Educator, called ‘The Father of American Geography.’ ” Half of that is correct, but his name is spelled Jedidiah, and he was not so much a patriot or founder as a mildly paranoid individual. He was a preacher, whose opinion on our government was no more useful or influential than any other preacher. Hobby Lobby quotes a sermon in which he laid out his evidence that the Illuminati, under the influence of the French government, had infiltrated the Untied States government. Hobby Lobby used an ellipsis to omit a part of the quote in which Morse mentions the “efforts made to destroy the foundations of our holy religion.”

At the very bottom of Hobby Lobby’s ad, it mentions that the ad was done “in association with www.wallbuilders.com.” This could explain the plethora of mistakes. Wallbuilders is an organization run a man who has been described as a “revisionist Christian nationalist.” He majored in “religious education” from Oral Roberts University, an evangelical Christian school with mega-preaching alumni like Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and Ted Haggard. In short, he majored in Christian ministry and is a propagandist for the false claim that the United States is a Christian nation. His biography of Thomas Jefferson was so full of mistakes that the publisher, Thomas Nelson, a Christian publishing house that is currently publishing more than 400 bibles and children’s books about Noah’s ark, stopped its publication because the “basic truths just were not there.” 

Hobby Lobby closes out its ad with an appeal to scripture, quoting part of Psalms 33:12: “Blessed is the nation whose God is LORD.” Irrelevant to the governing or founding of our country, but even so, Hobby Lobby is misusing the quote. “Nation” in that context does not refer to a state or country, it refers to a group of people. Here’s the full quote according to the New Revised Standard Version:

Happy is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.”

This doesn’t refer to a country, but to the group of people who wrote that particular book of the bible and not-so-humbly thought themselves “chosen.” And when “LORD” is written in all capital letters it is the moniker of the Hebrew god, Yahweh. So what this really says is: “Happy are the Hebrew people who worship Yahweh, for Yahweh has chosen them.” Somehow we don’t think this is what the Christian company means when it uses the quote.

Researched and written by FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew L. Seidel

A very special thanks to Chuck Rosloff, FFRF’s Legal Intern and Harvard 2L for designing the amazing interactive website.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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