Stephen Mansfield's "Ten Tortured Words" -- A Book Review (Part 1)
Chris Rodda printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Aug 13, 2007 at 04:01:17 PM EST
After reading Don Byrd's post on Stephen Mansfield's USA Today op-ed, I decided to get a copy of this best-selling author's latest book, Ten Tortured Words: How the Founding Fathers Tried to Protect Religion in America and What's Happened Since. Given the assertions made by Mansfield in his op-ed, which included the ridiculous claim that Thomas Jefferson "insisted upon the Bible as part of the curriculum at the University of Virginia," I thought I knew what to expect from his book. Ten Tortured Words, however, surpassed even my lowest expectations.

When I got the book on Saturday, the first thing I did was turn it over to read the description on the back of its jacket, which begins:

It was the steamy summer of 1787, as America's founding fathers fashioned their Constitution, they told the most powerful institution in their new nation what it must not do:

"CONGRESS SHALL MAKE NO LAW RESPECTING AN ESTABLISHMENT OF RELIGION."

What??? This seems to be saying that the First Amendment was written in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention. I must have misread this, I thought, and proceeded to reread it several times. No, I read it right the first time. It really does say that the First Amendment was written at the Constitutional Convention. My next thought was that this jacket text wasn't written by Stephen Mansfield himself, but by some history ignoramus at the publishing company. Mansfield, a New York Times best-selling author, writing an entire book on the First Amendment, couldn't possibly be unaware that this amendment was written two years later by the first Congress. Well, reading the book quickly proved that the benefit of the doubt I was giving Mansfield for this erroneous jacket text was completely undeserved. In fact, I didn't need to read any further than the introduction to realize this.

On pages xv-xvi, Mansfield says of Thomas Jefferson's January 1, 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists (emphasis is mine):

It did not matter that Thomas Jefferson wrote this letter some fourteen years after the First Amendment became law. It did not matter that Thomas Jefferson was not even in the country during the convention that drafted the First Amendment. ...

This is even worse than the jacket text. Fourteen years after the First Amendment became law??? The First Amendment, drafted by the first Congress in the summer of 1789, didn't become law until December 15, 1791. This, of course, would make Jefferson's writing of his letter to the Baptists almost exactly ten years after the amendment became law, not fourteen years. And, again, Mansfield calls the body that drafted the amendment "the convention."

On page 65 of his book, Mansfield not only gets this wrong again, but isn't even consistent with the version in his introduction, in this case indicating that he not only doesn't know that the amendment was written by the first Congress, but doesn't realize there was a two year gap between its writing and its becoming law. According to Mansfield:

Also, he wrote the Danbury letter nearly a decade and a half after the First Amendment was written. ...

Remarkably, in other places in his book, Mansfield does have the first Congress drafting the First Amendment, as if he copied this information without it even dawning on him that it contradicts his other statements and timeline.

But, wait...it gets better. Mansfield apparently doesn't understand that the Constitutional Convention and the Continental Congress were two separate bodies, with the Congress continuing to meet in New York while the Convention was taking place in Philadelphia. This is blatantly apparent in his description of how the Northwest Ordinance, also written in the summer of 1787, came about. On page 14, he has Manasseh Cutler pitching his Ohio Company proposals to the Constitutional Convention.

On July 13, 1787, when the Constitutional Convention was but seven weeks along in its great task, a Massachusetts war hero, medical doctor, and clergyman named Manasseh Cutler asked the Convention to approve a plan for establishing a colony in the Ohio Territory. ...

Even a person with a rudimentary knowledge of this period of American history, let alone a person passing themselves off as an authority by writing a book on it, should certainly be expected to know that the Constitutional Convention's sole purpose and work was the Constitution, and that the regular business of the country was simultaneously proceeding at the Congress in New York, which, of course, is where Cutler took the proposals for the Northwest Ordinance. Mansfield makes David Barton, whose masterpiece of historical revisionism, Original Intent, is listed in the bibliography of Ten Tortured Words, almost seem by comparison to be the real historian he claims to be.

On pages143 to 148 of his book, Mansfield presents a list of twenty quotes, the purpose of which is to argue against the idea that, while many of the founders were personally religious, the government they created was secular. Some of these quotes are accurately presented, but most are either out of context, complete fabrications, or in some other way deceptive. One of the twenty even appears on David Barton's "Unconfirmed Quotations" list. For those unfamiliar with this list, these are quotes that even a history revisionist as bad as David Barton urges his minions to refrain from using.

I'll be writing much more over the next few weeks about the numerous instances of Christian nationalist revisionism found in Ten Tortured Words, but will end for now with a striking example of Stephen Mansfield's own brand of word torturing, in the form of the following Madison "quote," found on page 146.

Religion is the basis and foundation of government. -- JAMES MADISON

Where does this quote come from? Well, according to Mansfield's note, Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. Here is the untortured paragraph from that document, with the words assembled by Mansfield to create his quote in bold.

15. Because finally, "the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his Religion according to the dictates of conscience" is held by the same tenure with all his other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consider the "Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of government," it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis.



Display:
Stephen Mansfield has no doubt said all sorts of exciting things.

Maybe we can dub such a level of textual torture, in Mansfield's honor, "to Mansfield" - meaning : to pluck individual words and textual bits from the body of a much larger quote and glue them together into bold new pseudo-quotes that can be foisted on an unsuspecting public, to advance a covert political agenda.

George Bush's January 23, 2007 State of The Union Address is fun to "Mansfield" :

"Our enemies are quite explicit about their intentions. They want to
overthrow moderate governments and establish safe havens from which to
plan and carry out new attacks on our country. By killing and
terrorizing Americans, they want to force our country to retreat from
the world and abandon the cause of liberty."

Then again, sometimes "Mansfielding" can bring out an underlying truth:

"I did not have sex with that woman" - Bill Clinton.

Regardless, it's never historically justifiable.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Aug 13, 2007 at 04:40:03 PM EST


Mansfield makes David Barton, whose masterpiece of historical revisionism, Original Intent, is listed in the bibliography of Ten Tortured Words, almost seem by comparison to be the real historian he claims to be.

It doesn't get much worse than David Barton, but I believe Mansfield has managed to pull it off.

Though it probably helps that most of their readers wouldn't know the difference, anyway -- and that the few who do wouldn't care.

by moiv on Tue Aug 14, 2007 at 02:02:41 AM EST


I personally think we should all mail Mansfield copies of Chris's book, Liars for Jesus, so that he can have USA Today print a retraction. I have noticed several columns on their Religion page that are so historically inaccurate that it is not funny! They had one on George Washington that had me gritting my teeth. I wrote to the author, but got no reply. What really frosts me is that USA Today has such a wide audience and people assume that the historical claims written by many of these writers must be true history because the paper wouldn't print them otherwise. Maybe Chris could think about an op-ed that does a general debunking of all those awful religion page essays.

by LindaJoy on Tue Aug 14, 2007 at 02:15:00 PM EST


WWW Talk To Action


Dark Discussions on the Christian Right
The Neo-Confederate movement has been trying to jump start itself of late.  It has been an especially heady few months for the League of......
By Frederick Clarkson (0 comments)
Oath Oaf: Religious Right Columnist Calls For Religious Tests In Military
Bryan Fischer, the director of issues analysis for the American Family Association (AFA) is like a demented, right-wing geyser: You can count on him......
By Rob Boston (1 comment)
Deeper Background on Dominionism -- Revisisted
In the Fall of 2011, there was an extraordinary -- and extraordinarily scurrilous -- wave of criticism aimed at those of us who had......
By Frederick Clarkson (0 comments)
Fall From Grace: What The Religious Right Should Learn From The McDonnell Scandal
Leaders of Religious Right groups are fond of telling us that if we elect more fundamentalist Christians to office, we'll have less corruption. Biblical......
By Rob Boston (2 comments)
A Visit To The Reality Community: Americans Have Sex. Americans Use Birth Control. Let's Move On.
Over the weekend, Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Greg Lipper took part in a panel discussion about the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision at......
By Rob Boston (3 comments)
Thomas DiLorenzo's Rebel Yelling
I have written a great deal in the past few years about the odd phenomenon of Catholic Neo-Confederatism.  Let's add one more name to......
By Frank Cocozzelli (2 comments)
Censorship Challenge: Texas Pastor Seeks Restrictions On `Dangerous' Library Books
Back in the 1990s, some Religious Right activists in Virginia got the bright idea to begin attacking America's public libraries. The idea was to......
By Rob Boston (1 comment)
Suspended St. Louis County Officer Dan Page Made Rounds on Rightwing Radio Shows
St. Louis Police Officer Dan Page drew national attention when he shoved CNN's Don Lemon during a broadcast of the protests in Ferguson, and......
By Rachel Tabachnick (1 comment)
Cop Who Shoved CNN Host Don Lemon Lassoed in Another Conspiracy Rodeo
Rachel Tabachnick broke an important story this evening showing that the rant by Officer Dan Page that got him suspended from the St.Louis County......
By Frederick Clarkson (0 comments)
Exile Excitement: Some Fundamentalists Seek Escape From Decadent Society
OK, now we've done it. Those of us who advocate things like separation of church and state, secular government, LGBT rights and self-determination when......
By Rob Boston (2 comments)
Controversy Over White Nationalist GOP Candidate Still White Hot
The 2004 Constitution Party candidate for president Michael Peroutka's current race for County Council in Maryland -- as a Republican -- it is still......
By Frederick Clarkson (0 comments)
Race, Republicans and the Religious Right
The Republicans have a race problem, and by this I don't just mean that racial minorities don't much vote for them, particularly in the......
By Frederick Clarkson (1 comment)
Rev. William Barber on Religious/Political Inclusiveness
A few weeks ago, I posted about the extraordinary oration of Rev. William Barber at Netroots Nation. (A transcript of the speech is now......
By Frederick Clarkson (0 comments)
Short Takes
Salon.com  Columnist Thomas Frank considers how snark can cut more than one way. What does it mean when being "on the left" is defined......
By Frederick Clarkson (1 comment)
David Brat as a "Libertarian Catholic" is an Oxymoron
David Brat, the Tea Party Young Turk who recently shocked the GOP establishment with his primary win over Majority Leader Eric Cantor, is reportedly,......
By Frank Cocozzelli (2 comments)

Deconstructing the Dominionists, Part VI
This is part 6 of a series by guest front pager Mahanoy, originally dated November 15, 2007 which I had to delete and repost for technical reasons. It is referred to in this post,......
Frederick Clarkson (0 comments)
Republican infighting in Mississippi
After a bruising GOP runoff election for U.S. Senator, current MS Senator Thad Cochran has retained his position and will face Travis Childers (Democrat) in the next senate election. The MS GOP is fractured......
COinMS (2 comments)
America's Most Convenient Bank® refuses to serve Christians
Representatives of a well known faith-based charitable organization were refused a New Jersey bank’s notarization service by an atheist employee. After inquiring about the nature of the non-profit organization and the documents requiring......
Jody Lane (3 comments)
John Benefiel takes credit for GOP takeover of Oklahoma
Many of you know that Oklahoma has turned an unrecognizable shade of red in recent years.  Yesterday, one of the leading members of the New Apostolic Reformation all but declared that he was responsible......
Christian Dem in NC (2 comments)
John Benefiel thinks America is under curse because Egyptians dedicated North America to Baal
You may remember that Rick Perry put together his "Response" prayer rallies with the help of a slew of NAR figures.  One of them was John Benefiel, an Oklahoma City-based "apostle."  He heads up......
Christian Dem in NC (2 comments)
Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Yes, that's right. We have totally lost our religious freedom in Mississippi and it must be restored by our legislators. ......
COinMS (1 comment)
Bill Gothard accused of harassing women and failing to report child abuse
Surprised no one's mentioned this, but one of the longest-standing leaders of the religious right is in a world of trouble.  Bill Gothard has been active in the fundie movement for over half......
Christian Dem in NC (1 comment)
Eugene Delgaudio may lose his day job as Virginia county supervisor
Surprised no one's noticed this, but one of the nation's most virulent homophobes is in a fight to keep his day job.  Eugene Delgaudio is best known as the head of Public Advocate......
Christian Dem in NC (0 comments)
Starkville Becomes First City in Mississippi to Pass Resolution Recognizing LGBT Residents
This caught me by surprise. I guess times are a changin in Dixieland. ------------------------------------- Cross posted from the HRC blog. Starkville Becomes First City in Mississippi to Pass Resolution Recognizing LGBT Residents January 21,......
COinMS (0 comments)
Robert Knight: Running against evolution could potentially be a winner for the GOP
In one of the starkest instances yet of how far gone the religious right is, one of its leading activists thinks that he's found another potential wedge issue that could drive more people into......
Christian Dem in NC (2 comments)
First Catholic official convicted in child sex abuse scandal has conviction overturned
Last year, Monsignor William Lynn, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's secretary for clergy, was convicted of reassigning a priest whom he knew had molested a young boy to a parish that had a school attached......
Christian Dem in NC (0 comments)
Quotes From Sarah Palin 'War on Christmas" Book v. Quotes From 1920s Anti-Jewish Propaganda
The point of this comparison is not to cast Sarah Palin as a Nazi. Rather, my intent is to underline uncomfortable similarities between contemporary "war on Christmas" talking points propagated by elements of the......
Bruce Wilson (0 comments)
Francis sets up commission on how to deal with pedophile priests
Late yesterday Pope Francis announced--apparently after some prodding--that he will set up a panel to advise him on how to deal with child abuse by priests. The announcement was a forthright acknowledgment by the......
Christian Dem in NC (0 comments)
John Hagee: Jews will make deal with Antichrist before End Times
When John Hagee opens his mouth, you expect to hear lunacy.  An appearance earlier this month on TBN was no different.  On Friday, People for the American Way stumbled on a special prophecy-focused edition......
Christian Dem in NC (0 comments)
Doug Phillips Resigns From Vision Forum over "Inappropriate Relationship"
Doug Phillips resigned as president of Vision Forum earlier this week, citing an "inappropriate relationship."   Phillips posted an announcement on the Vision Forum website, stating, There has been serious sin in my life......
Rachel Tabachnick (2 comments)

More Diaries...




All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. Comments, posts, stories, and all other content are owned by the authors. Everything else 2005 Talk to Action, LLC.