U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Case On Government-sponsored Ten Commandments Display

Inaction By High Court Means Indiana Religious Display Must Come Down

TV preacher Pat Robertson's Regent University is soliciting support with a full-page ad in U.S. News & World Report that features a bogus quotation about the Ten Commandments supposedly uttered by James Madison.

The ad, which appears in the April 9 edition of the magazine, is centered around a large-type assertion at the top of the page attributed to Madison. "We have staked the whole of our political institutions," Madison is quoted as saying, "upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God."

The ad gives no source for the statement, and with good reason: It appears nowhere in the writings of Madison. It was debunked years ago by Madison scholars and even many Religious Right leaders have admitted that the quote can't be substantiated.

"Robertson and Regent are advertising their ignorance," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "I feel sorry for the students who pay thousands of dollars to go there if they're learning Religious Right mythology instead of real history."

The inaccurate Madison Ten Commandments quote was circulated among the Religious Right chiefly by David Barton, a Texas man who peddles a revisionist history arguing that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation." In 1996, Barton admitted that the quote is bogus and recommended that people stop using it.

In 1993, the curators of the Madison Papers at the University of Virginia were asked if they could verify the quote. They replied that they could not. Wrote Curators John Stagg and David Mattern, "We did not find anything in our files remotely like the sentiment expressed in the extract you sent us. In addition, the idea is inconsistent with everything we know about Madison's views on religion and government, views which he expressed time and time again in public and in private."

Robertson founded Regent in 1977 as CBN University, named for his Christian Broadcasting Network. Today he serves as its chancellor and president. The school is headquartered in Virginia Beach but recently opened a satellite campus in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., because Robertson wanted a presence near the nation's capital.

Lynn noted that it's ironic that Robertson would try to draft Madison as an ally to prop up his university. Our fourth president, Lynn pointed out, was a strong advocate of separation of church and state. He opposed tax funding of religion, publicly funded chaplains in the Congress and the military and even expressed regret for issuing proclamations declaring official days of prayer during his presidency.

Lynn noted that in an 1819 letter to a friend, Madison wrote, "[T]he number, the industry and the morality of the Priesthood & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State."

Observed Lynn, "Unlike Robertson's phony Madison quote, you can look that one up."

(James Madison wrote frequently about religious freedom and its corollary, the separation of church and state. AU has compiled some of Madison's best quotations on the subject.)

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.