I realize this isn’t exactly big news but David Barton’s use of questionable quotes caught my eye because there is a local connection.
In a WND article out yesterday, David Barton described a situation in nearby Oil City, PA. Here is his not-quite-accurate version:
Because these groups are non-discriminatory in their God-hating, even our venerated military heroes are not off limits. The Veterans of Foreign Wars in Oil City, Pennsylvania, placed a bench in a city park, and on the bench was an inscription of a famous quote by William Penn: “If we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants.” This quote, selected by retired military veterans from the historical writings of the founder of their state, was too much for these history-haters. It generated a lawsuit from the American Atheists Legal Center.
(Maybe I should apologize for my patronizing tone, but my defense is that “Sarcasm is the body’s natural defense against stupidity.” Albert Einstein once noted: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” It seems he’s still being proved right on the latter.)
With those details, I was able to piece together a more accurate narrative.
In a city park there, the VFW in 2003 placed a bench with the slogan: “Men who aren’t governed by God will be governed by tyrants.” Late last year, the American Atheists Legal Center wrote the Oil City leaders a letter of complaint (not a lawsuit) and asked that the slogan be changed. The AALC offered to replace the bench for free with another slogan less offensive to them. According to a Venango county news report, the town Council voted in early December to remove the bench. Now, a citizens’ group has created a website to raise money to defend the bench. Liberty Counsel has also offered to defend the city pro bono. As of now, the bench is still there. A representative of that group told me this morning that nothing has happened with the bench to date.
When I read Barton’s account, my first thought was that both quotes (Penn’s and Einstein’s) were questionable. I also wondered if the facts of the situation were described accurately.
What is so typical of Barton is that he is off on both the current event and the history. First, he tells us that the Oil City bench has a William Penn quote: “If we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants.” However, the bench doesn’t have that exact quote. It says: “Men who aren’t governed by God will be governed by tyrants.” Second, it is extremely unlikely that Penn said or wrote either quote.
I traced the quote back to a book by Mark Beliles where it is combined with something William Penn did write. Often the quote appears like this (e.g., from William Federer’s book of quotations):
The first part of the quote is correct and comes from a letter Penn wrote to Peter the Great. However, the second part appears to be added on. I found the letter Penn wrote to Peter the Great and the phrase, “Those who will not be governed by God will be ruled by tyrants” is just not in it.
Thus, Barton claims in his WND article that the atheists are disrespecting history. On first analysis, it appears that it is Barton who has it wrong.
Regarding the Einstein quote, I learned that the claim on that quote comes from founder of Gestalt therapy Fritz Perls. Perls claimed Einstein said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe” to him in a conversation. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I point readers to a very thorough blog post on this quote at the highly recommended Quote Investigator blog.
Knowing a little about Perls, I don’t have any confidence that Perls ever had a conversation with Einstein, or if he did that Einstein said that quote exactly as Perls reported it. I note from the blog post that Perls recollection of the quote crystallized in Perls’ books written after Einstein died, and thus could not contest it. In any case, I am not surprised Barton used a quote which has a questionable source.
UPDATE: I spoke with Oil City Mayor William Moon this afternoon. He told me that the AALC and the VFW are in discussions about what slogan to include on the new bench. He said the bench will remain in the park until AALC and VFW agree on a slogan and a new bench is delivered.