Mixing Of Politics, Religion Would Have Shocked Founders: America Was Never A Christian Nation
The influence of the religious right has reached its highest point under the presidency of George W. Bush. Take your pick of indicators. Billions of dollars directed to faith-based organizations. Science rejected, whether it is global warming, embryonic stem cell research or evolution. An administration stuffed full of fundamentalist graduates of Regent University, the law school founded by Pat Robertson which was formerly known as Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) University.
No less than President Bush himself claimed during one of his debates with John Kerry that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. This claim has been repeatedly made by the religious right.
The claim is contrary to the facts. The founding fathers were broad-minded, cosmopolitan intellectuals – not pious Bible-believing men. They were products of the European Enlightenment. They looked skeptically at religious zeal as a form of irrationality.
They certainly did not found America to be a Christian nation or any kind of theocracy. The 18th century they inhabited was a time when science and skepticism held sway over faith. The absence of the mention of God in our federal constitution was no accident.
The founders were largely Deists. Among them: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and Tom Paine.
Deism is a little known philosophical system that was popular around the time of the American revolution. Deists believed in a supreme deity who created the universe. They did not believe that deity exerted influence in the world.
Deists rejected supernatural beliefs and thought the exercise of human reason was the means to solve society’s problems.
The record is clear that Deists rejected Christian doctrine like the virgin birth, the divinity and resurrection of Jesus and miracles in the Bible. They saw Jesus as a great philosopher rather than a divine figure.
In her book Moral Minority, Brooke Allen explores the religious beliefs of the major founding fathers. It will surprise a lot of people how skeptical of religion and how even anti-clerical the founders actually were.
George Washington almost never spoke about religion. In the 37 volumes of his collected papers, there is little mention of religion. He was very cagey in avoiding declaring himself on religion.
Allen concluded that religion played a small role in his life. He was nominally a member of the Episcopal Church but he could certainly not be classified as an avid churchgoer. Unlike his wife Martha, he did not take communion. During the last three years of his life, he attended church only three times. No minister was present at his deathbed.
Hide your bibles
Thomas Jefferson referred to Christianity as “our particular superstition.” He actually wrote his own version of the gospel that became known as the Jefferson Bible. It eliminated all miracles attributed to Jesus, contained no resurrection and it ended with Jesus’s burial.
Jefferson once famously wrote, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
Jefferson was hated and feared by the religious right of his day. When he was elected president, New Englanders actually hid their bibles. He harbored a deep-seated hatred of the clergy of every brand of religion.
At the same time, he believed passionately in universal freedom of religion. He advocated full religious liberty so that believers of all stripes and atheists would all have rights that would be respected.
James Madison was, along with Jefferson, the strongest supporter of the separation of church and state. Madison had a negative assessment of the Christian church’s relation to civil power. He wrote, “During almost 15 centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.”
The original Constitution, before the Bill of Rights, contained only one mention of religion in Article VI. That mention was a radical novelty at the time. It was the injunction “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” That was Madison’s view. The intent was promotion of merit over adherence to an ideology or faith.
If the founding fathers had wanted to designate America a Christian nation, there can be little doubt they would have included in the Constitution references to God, Jesus, Christianity and the Bible. They might have made it a requirement that only Christians could hold public office. They knew what they were doing. They did none of those things.
The founders protected religious pluralism by keeping religion out of the legal framework of the United States. Looking at the violence done in the name of religion since that time, it is hard to deny the founders’ wisdom and vision on the separation of church and state.