The founding fathers, and in particular the ones who contributed most to drafting and writing the Constitution, had a long and consistent career of fighting the integration of religion and government with vigor; Thomas Jefferson and James Madison especially.
After the Revolutionary War was won, James Madison commenced his attack on theocracy in his home state of Virginia. Patrick Henry proposed making Christianity the official state religion; a move he though generous compared to the naming of a specific Christian sect, which had previously been the case in Virginia. That was still far from what Madison found acceptable; he wanted a complete separation, as he made clear in his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments:
The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men…We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority…
Notice also that Madison was fully cognizant of the dangerous inclination majority religions had to marginalize minority religions, and thus he wanted to protect the smaller ones from the tyranny of the majority.
Joining Madison in the fight in the Virginia Assembly, Jefferson made a powerful case for the cause of complete separation as well. Coming from the same perspective as Madison, Jefferson argued vigorously for the Virginia Statute of Religious freedom, saying that it wasn’t just a matter of being prevented from practicing your own religion, but also to be protected from being forced to support someone else’s in any way whatsoever:
Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
In other words, freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
Did the 1st Amendment mean “Separation of Church and State?”
In a detached memorandum on the 1st Amendment, James Madison further elaborated what his understanding of it was. This essay is thoroughly permeated with references to the “separation between Religion & Govt” worded in many ways so as to leave his meaning unambiguous.
Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history… The most notable attempt was that in Virg[ini]a to establish a Gen[era]l assessment for the support of all Xn sects… In the course of the opposition to the bill in the House of Delegates, which was warm & strenuous from some of the minority, an experiment was made on the reverence entertained for the name & sactity of the Saviour, by proposing to insert the words “Jesus Christ” after the words “our lord” in the preamble, the object of which, would have been, to imply a restriction of the liberty defined in the Bill, to those professing his religion only.
But besides the danger of a direct mixture of Religion & civil Government, there is an evil which ought to be guarded agst in the indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in perpetuity by ecclesiastical corporations… The excessive wealth of ecclesiastical Corporations and the misuse of it in many Countries of Europe has long been a topic of complaint…
Eliminating any remaining uncertainty, in 1802, January 1, Jefferson made explicit his understanding of the 1st Amendment in a letter to the Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
Jefferson’s friend Benjamin Rush certainly interpreted a complete separation to be Jefferson’s interpretation of the 1st Amendment, and indeed agreed with him on his position, as was clear in a letter he wrote Jefferson:
“I agree with you likewise in your wishes to keep religion and government independent of each other… Were it possible for St. Paul to rise from his grave at the present juncture, he would say to the clergy who are now so active in settling the political affairs of the world: ‘Cease from your political labors your kingdom is not of this world. Read my epistles. In no part of them will you perceive me aiming to depose a pagan emperor, or to place a Christian upon a throne. Christianity disdains to receive support from human governments.’
The actions of President Madison in Office
When James Madison was president, he vetoed bills that were to allocate surplus land to churches. Madison’s reason was that “there is an evil which ought to be guarded against in the indefinite accumulation of property…by ecclesiastical corporations.” Madison also voiced strong opposition to putting chaplains in congress to open sessions. He said “In strictness…the Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes.” Following this unmistakable trend, he was also against government-sponsored day of prayer; he said that it would “imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.” Madison’s actions spoke as loudly as his words regarding church ans state.
What the other founders had to say
- On the topic George Washington says that we are well beyond mere “toleration” of other religions, but rather “inherent natural rights… The Government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Washington even specified that these inherent natural rights did not extend merely to denominations of Christianity, but all religions. In March of 1784, Washington said “if they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews, or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists.”
- John Adams was a Unitarian, known also as Liberal Christianity in his day. He had very little toleration for specific dogmas, and was even more against those who tried to impose them on others. He said “Let the human mind loose. It must be loose. It will be loose. Superstition and dogmatism cannot confine it.” Adams was also the president that signed the Treaty of Tripoli, stating “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” What’s more, at the age of 85 Adams attended the 1820 Massachusetts constitutional convention to argue for complete religious liberty, and the disestablishment of religion in Massachusetts (a, b, c,).
Let us focus on the Treaty of Tripoli for a moment since this is one of the topics theocrats engage in serious motivated reasoning and bend over backwards to misinterpret. The argument goes that the Treaty had nothing to do with how the government truly felt about religious liberty and the government’s role or lack thereof in religion; that it was an utterly hollow and meaningless statement only issued to protect US exporters shipping in the Mediterranean. With even the shallowest examination, however, this argument is absurd. Can you imagine Mike Pence, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, or any other conservative religious member of the government publicly disavowing their “sincerely held beliefs” just to help US trade exports? Absolutely not! Moreover, President John Adams who signed it explicitly said the following on it:
“Now be it known, That I John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said Treaty do, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof. And to the End that the said Treaty may be observed, and performed with good Faith on the part of the United States, I have ordered the premises to be made public; And I do hereby enjoin and require all persons bearing office civil or military within the United States, and all other citizens or inhabitants thereof, faithfully to observe and fulfill the said Treaty and every clause and article thereof.”
Those aren’t the words of a person who accepted the treaty on expediency, lukewarm support, or duplicity. Twenty-three of thirty-two Senators were present, and the Treaty was accepted unanimously on June 7th 1797. The theocratic argument that the mention of religion in the treaty was not something Adams or the Senate really meant could not be more clearly false.
The difference between the founding fathers and the current Christians in today’s government is not that the founders didn’t believe in their religious tenants just as vigorously, they did. The difference is that the founders still remembered first hand exactly how shamefully one empowered religion (or one empowered denomination of the same nominal religion) will disregard liberty and human dignity to oppress another. They believed virtually the same thing about the Establishment Clause as today’s atheists; that a person’s religious beliefs are up to them alone, and that the government has absolutely no business privileging one sect over another sect, or a sect against the non-religious. And if one thing is bad for economics and trade (including interstate), it is religious wars.
Thus, the Treaty of Tripoli was a genuine declaration of what the US government believed, not a frivolous declaration for the sake of a little trade. Additionally, it was a declaration that the US would not do what the Crusaders, Britain, France, Spain, or so many other European forces did and spread Christian belief with the sword (let’s not knee-jerk here, I’m not saying Muslims hadn’t done the same thing).
Moving along, Thomas Paine, the deist author of the immensely historically significant pamphlet Common Sense, was a serious critic of all organized religion. But he was especially against religion being in government because he knew it tended towards tyranny and persecution:
Persecution is not an original feature in any religion, but it is always the strongly marked feature of all…established by law.
Religious Beliefs of the US Founders
Most of the founding fathers did indeed believe in a god of one kind or another, but other than John Adams who was a Unitarian, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Paine all were far closer to deists than Christians; Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine were unambiguously deists.
- Jefferson, although he thought Jesus existed and taught “sublime doctrines of philanthropism and deism,” he believed Jesus was a mere mortal and that the miracles attributed to him were no more than pious exaggerations. He in fact even admitted to disagreeing with Jesus in some respects. “It is not to be understood that I am with him in all his doctrines. I am a materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin, I require a counter-poise of good works to redeem it, etc,etc.” Further going against the Christian doctrine that orthodoxy is preferred over good works, Jefferson said “Were I to be the founder of a new sect, I would call them the Apiarians, and after the example of the bee, advise them to extract the honey of every sect… My fundamental principle would be… that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power,an not by our faith which is not within our power.”
- Ben Franklin actually identified as a deist: “the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.” But, he felt that religion did help keep the masses better behaved. He loved the oratory of preacher George Whitefield, but reaffirmed that he didn’t change his position on deism. He said of Whitefield, “He us’d, indeed, sometimes to pray for my conversion, but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard. Ours was a mere civil friendship, sincere on both sides, and lasted to his death.”
- Washington, like Franklin, and almost all the founding fathers, enjoyed the oratory of a good sermon and regularly attended church. But conspicuously, he left services early to avoid taking communion; and like Jefferson he refused to be confirmed, which was a very serious and telling decision among those in the Anglican (Episcopalian) church of the day. Indeed, after one preacher strongly hinted negatively at George Washington’s early departures, he left and never returned to the church.
- Thomas Paine is the most unmistakable Deist considering he wrote an entire book disparaging organized religion in every form, The Age of Reason. Though he still affirmed a creator god that made the universe, he believed that god did not interfere after creation, and he certainly didn’t believe in miracles or the divinity of Jesus. He went as far as saying “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”
- Much later the devout Presbyterian, Andrew Jackson, would uphold the indispensable doctrines of separation of church and state, saying “Amongst the greatest blessings secured to us under our Constitution is the liberty of worshiping God as our conscience dictates.” During his administration, evangelicals were insisting that God’s wrath would come upon the nation if it didn’t stop the Sunday mail. Jackson supported a congressional decree, led by Richard M. Johnson (later Van Buren’s Vice President), that “it is not the legitimate province of the Legislature to determine which religion is true, or what is false,” and that “Our government is a civil and not a religious institution.” The next year Johnson added, “The advance of the human race in intelligence, in virtue, and in religion itself depends, in part, upon the speed with which…knowledge…is disseminated,” and that “The mail is the chief means by which intellectual light irradiates to the extremes of the republic. Stop it one day in seven, and you retard one seventh of the advancement of our country.”
So despite being religious to varying degrees, and several believing the doctrines of Jesus were beneficial to society in a similar way as a philosopher’s virtuous philosophies, all of the most influential founding fathers were uniform in their opposition to the government at any level interfering with, giving preferential protections to, or infringing upon the freedom of any religion or non-religion. This also means that one religious sect cannot be permitted to infringe upon the rights of others. There is no ambiguity in what the writers of the 1st Amendment meant by the establishment clause in the 1st Amendment.
When a person says that “the government of the United States was founded on Christianity” they are unambiguously wrong. If they say that most Americans were Christians back then they would be correct, though stating something largely irrelevant; most people back then held to many doctrines most today would consider absurd. Above all, even if the US government had been founded on Christianity, that would not be evidence in any way that that is how it should be. Questions of what should be must be founded on logical conclusions from facts, not appeals to tradition.
Lastly, when a person fails at all their other theocratic claims on the topic they retreat so saying that, at minimum, the founders were inspired by Judeo-Christian principles. While technically true, the founders were inspired as much by ancient Greek and pre-Christian Roman principles as Judeo-Christianity. Through Enlightenment philosophers even Chinese and Persian principles inspired the founders. Just to name a couple, Voltaire, writing on the Chinese,praised Confucius; Montesquieu wrote a social commentary on France from the perspective of two Persian noblemen. The founding fathers devoured Enlightenment books.
So the when someone says the US was found on Judeo-Christian principles, the more accurate claim would be that, of the many principles America was founded on, those of the Judeo-Christians are on the very long list.
Books I utilized in the article:
- The Religious History of America, by Edwin Gaustad and Leigh Schmidt
- The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, by David L. Holmes
- John Adams, by David McCullough
- Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham
- American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, by Jon Meacham
- The Age of Voltaire, by Will Durant
And probably several more I forgot.