Josh Hawley falls in a hole, finds a shovel, and keeps digging

Josh Hawley’s Unexpected Journey: A Tale of Falling, Discovery, and Unyielding Determination

Sen. Josh Hawley was hardly the first prominent Republican to use social media to promote a fake quote from history, but the Missouri senator’s Fourth of July incident was noticeably more ridiculous than the usual mishaps.

To briefly review, the GOP lawmaker — who majored in history at Stanford before getting a law degree from Yale — honored Independence Day by publishing a tweet that quoted Patrick Henry as saying the United States was “founded … on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Henry, however, never said any such thing: Hawley was actually quoting a report from a white nationalist publication that ran in 1956 — more than a century and a half after the Founding Father’s death.

At that point, the Republican had a few options. Hawley could’ve deleted the tweet and pretended he hadn’t promoted a false quote. He could’ve blamed a staffer. He could’ve shown some kind of contrition and vowed to do better in the future.

Instead, the senator published a follow-up tweet, featuring a poorly written taunt.

“I’m told the libs are major triggered by the connection between the Bible and the American Founding.”

Right off the bat, it’s worth emphasizing that Hawley — who appears to be preoccupied with his unfortunate vision of masculinity — keeps trying too hard to sound cool. “I’m told the libs are major triggered”? It sounds like ham-fisted dialogue from a 1980s surfers movie.

What’s more, I have no idea how the right defines “triggered” in the contemporary discourse, but a senator tried to deceive the public. Then he got caught. Now he seems to find it amusing that people he disapproves of noticed his deception — which makes Hawley less of a senator and more of an online troll.

But following up on Wednesday’s coverage, what matters most in this story is why the Missouri Republican misled people: Hawley wanted to honor the Fourth of July by arguing that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, with members of one faith tradition — his own — enjoying exalted status over others.

Indeed, as part of his response Wednesday, the senator highlighted a handful of other historical quotes, which he apparently believed bolstered his original contention.

At this point, we could go back and forth, playing an unsatisfying tit-for-tat game of quotes. I could cite Thomas Jefferson, while Hawley would reference Daniel Webster. I’d respond with a quote from James Madison, leading Hawley to counter with a quote from Benjamin Rush.

This could go on for a while, and though I’m certain that my list of quotes would prevail — the historical record is, after all, on my side — the fact remains that the entire exercise is unnecessary. As historian Kevin Kruse explained in a terrific piece overnight:

[I]t’s better, I think, to brush aside these politicians and partisans who cherry-pick their way through the founding era and simply remind them that in the Constitution of the United States — you know, the document that actually founded this country and established its rules and norms — none of their wish casting for a “Christian nation” finds any support at all.

Quite right. I’ve long believed that this effectively ends any debate over whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation: The Constitution is a secular document that created a secular government. Period. Full stop.

For opponents of church-state separation, this nagging detail must be terribly frustrating, but reality is stubborn. Either the nation’s founders created a secular constitutional system that guarantees religious liberty for all, or they meant to base our constitutional system of government on Christianity but somehow forgot.

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