Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Founding Fathers: Secular and Proud of It

Recently, Republican primary voters in Texas approved a non-binding referendum which stated, “The use of the word ‘God’, prayers, and the Ten Commandments should be allowed at public gatherings and public educational institutions, as well as be permitted on government buildings and property.” At about the same time, the Republican-dominated State Board of Education in Texas voted to de-emphasize in the state’s social study curricula the influence of the Enlightenment on the thought of the Founding Fathers and to emphasize their Judeo-Christian faith.

In both cases, the Republican Right claims it’s simply following the example of the Founding Fathers. The Religious Right believes the Founders were deeply devoted Christians who did not believe in a separation of church and state. Furthermore, the right contends that modern-day godless liberals concocted the concept of church/state separation out of thin air. Many religious right-wingers argue that the Founders intended for the United States to be a “Christian” nation.

If the United States was intended to be a Christian Republic, we should first ask, which Christianity? Catholics, Christian Scientists, Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Mormons, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, and Southern Baptists all call themselves Christians, yet they disagree significantly on issues like the Trinity, the virgin birth, the day of worship, the role of faith and works in salvation, biblical inerrancy, the need for sacraments, healing, the role of the clergy, the divinity of Jesus, the proper relationship of Christians to the secular world, the role of church in civic society, and so on. I fear that when members of the Christian Right refer to “Christianity,” they are referring only to their narrow slice of the big, diverse and confusing theological pie.

But let’s set the issue of definitions of Christianity aside for now. Are right-wingers right? Did the Founders intend the United States to be a “Christian” nation, regardless of what that means? Perhaps it would do to examine the historical record.

When the Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on September 6, 1774, it faced head-on issue of church and state separation. Thomas Cushing of Massachusetts suggested that the Congress open the session with a prayer. New York delegate John Jay, who would become one of the three authors of “The Federalist Papers” (a series of essays written to persuade the states to ratify the United States Constitution) and John Rutledge of South Carolina objected.

The reason for their opposition to prayer, future president John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife Abigail, was that “because we were so divided in religious Sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians and some Congregationalists, so that We could not join in the same Act of Worship.” (Source: Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, The Massachusetts Historical Society. Please note that I will use the spelling and capitalization employed in the original documents.)

However, the Congress met in an atmosphere of dread. A rumor spread, later to be found false, that the British planned to soon bombard Boston. The delegates felt a noose tightening around their necks and felt the need to request divine assistance. Worried about what would happen to the city that was the epicenter of resistance to the British government, the delegates eventually agreed to request that an Episcopal minister, a “Mr. Duché,” deliver a prayer the following day.

Before the Congress convened the following morning, “Mr. Duché [answered] . . . that if his Health would permit, he certainly would. Accordingly next Morning he appeared with his Clerk and in his Pontificallibus, and read several Prayers, in the established Form; and then read the Collect for the seventh day of September, which was the Thirty fifth Psalm. -You must remember this was the next Morning after we heard the horrible Rumour, of the Cannonade of Boston. I never saw a greater Effect upon an Audience.” (Source: Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, The Massachusetts Historical Society.)

The above incident reveals three major facts about the “Founding Fathers”:

1) Most of the Founders believed in God.

2) They were concerned that public expression of faith might degenerate into theological bullying.

3) They were uncertain about where to draw the line between church and state, but since the country was already religiously diverse in the 18th century, they were certain that such a separation should exist.

This ambivalence only grew with time.

Flash forward thirteen years. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Ben Franklin made a motion that a prayer be said at the start of each day’s session. His motion failed by a wide margin. “The Convention except for three or four persons thought prayers unnecessary!!” Franklin noted in his diary. (Source: “The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787,” Max Farrand, ed., Volume III, New Haven: Yale University Press, Copyright, 1911.) Notes kept during the convention state that, “No chaplain was chosen for the convention at any period of its session, although Dr. Franklin proposed one, as has been reported, after the convention had been some time sitting. ... (Ibid.)

The Founding Fathers were of split mind regarding the role of religion in public affairs. The Founders were born English citizens, and they were too aware that England had been wracked by a series of civil wars in the 1500s after Henry VIII founded the Anglican Church because the Pope would not annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Protestants slaughtered Catholics in order to make England an Anglican country and, when Mary, (Henry VIII’s daughter by Catherine) briefly held the throne, Catholics returned the favor and slew Protestants. The Founders feared religious tyranny. After the American triumph in the Revolution, Congregationalists in New England feared that Anglicans in Virginia would impose the Episcopal faith on their states, just as Anglicans feared the establishment of Congregationalism as the national creed.

This worry explains the prominent place of the “establishment clause” in the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment declares, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It should be noted that delegates from Massachusetts and other highly religious states supported the First Amendment because it did not prohibit states from establishing a religion within their boundaries, but the overwhelming momentum within the early American Republic was towards creating a strict separation between government and religion.

Shortly after the American Revolution, states began disestablishing churches. The Anglican Church, the church established by Henry VIII, was the official religion of Virginia prior to the American Revolution. Tax dollars supported the Anglican Church in Virginia. Only marriages conducted by the Anglican clergy were legal. With English rule ended in the 1780s, Thomas Jefferson, the chief author of the Declaration of Independence and a major influence on James Madison (the chief author of the U.S. Constitution) began lobbying for a law that would end tax support for any denomination and would completely separate church and state.

In his 1777 “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” Jefferson blasted “the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil and ecclesiastical, who, but being but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only one true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others . . .” (Source: “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson,” Julian P. Boyd, ed., Vol. 2, p. 545-546, Princeton University Press, 1950-2004.) Jefferson penned another version of the bill in 1785, which declared, “God hath made the mind free.” The proposed statute became Virginia law in 1786.

From his voluminous writings, it was clear that Jefferson opposed not just the establishment of specific Christian sects as the national or state creeds, but also the concept that a more broadly defined Christianity should be imposed as the national faith. In his book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson wrote, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg . . . It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself . . . Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity.” (Source: Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” p. 159-160, Nabu Press, 2010.)

Jefferson was even more specific on whether the United States was conceived of as a “Christian Nation” during his presidency. In the fourteenth article of “The Treaty of Peace and Understanding Between the United States and the Bey and the Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary,” written at the end of the American conflict with the Barbary Pirates off the coast of North Africa, Jefferson wrote, “As the Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion – as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims] – and as the said States have never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan [Islamic] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions should ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” (Source: http://www.orsomax.com/OEA/Document/Trattato%20USA-Libia%201805.pdf)

The Founding Fathers were concerned not just about granting the Congress the power to establish a national faith, but worried deeply about the tyranny of the religious majority in any local community. This concern particularly animated James Madison, who hoped that the religious diversity of the United States as a whole would mitigate against theological bullying in individual states and communities. As Madison wrote in Federalist Papers 51, "It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure."

In other words, favoring one faith, even one defined as broadly as Christianity, threatens the freedom of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, atheists and agnostics. Madison’s fears proved prophetic. State-sponsored prayers have often been the cause of ugly and even violent harassment aimed at religious minorities.

To point out just one instance, in 1993, the Herdahl family moved from Wisconsin to Ecru, a small town in Pontotoc County, Mississippi. The Herdahls were Lutherans but attended a Pentecostal Church once they settled in their new home. Ecru is predominantly Southern Baptist. Lisa Herdahl, a mother of six, later recalled being shocked when she learned that the schools her children attended, in violation of the 1963 “Murray v. Curlett” Supreme Court decision, opened each day with a prayer over the loudspeaker. Teachers there led students in prayer before lunch each day, and religious instructors selected by local churches conducted Bible lessons during class time. (Source: Peter Applebome, “Court Restricts Prayer at Mississippi,” New York Times, June 4, 1996. See also the documentary “School Prayer: A Community at War.”)

Herdahl was no atheist, but she was offended that the school system was so flagrantly violating the law. She said that the school-imposed prayers also violated the religious principles she taught her children, that faith should be private. She would cite Matthew 6:5-6: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Ibid.)

When Herdahl objected, school officials continued the prayers and subjected the Herdahl children to humiliating treatment. According to the New York Times, “a teacher placed earphones on [Herdahl’s] 7-year-old son to prevent him from hearing the prayers. Her 5-year-old daughter was escorted out of kindergarten in front of the other children when Bible classes began. People for the American Way, which supported Mrs. Herdahl, cited another incident when a classmate asked to leave with Mrs. Herdahl's 11-year-old son before Bible classes began. The teacher denied the request, saying, in effect, that children who believe in God stay in Bible class and those who do not, go someplace else.” [Ibid.]

When Mrs. Herdahl filed a lawsuit, teachers and students called the Herdahl children atheists and devil-worshippers. Friends of the children stopped playing with them because they were afraid of being beaten up. The Herdahls received late night phone calls that included death threats. [Ibid.]

This is exactly the type of situation James Madison hoped the Constitution would prevent and the reason that the Founding Fathers chose to not found the United States as a “Christian” state. Such a declaration of an American religious identity was abhorrent to Madison’s view of freedom.

“During almost fifteen hundred years has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial,” Madison argued. “What has 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. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest luster; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy.” (Source: James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” June 20, 1785.

The biggest irony in the debate over the religious right’s insistence that America was intended to be a Christian nation is that most of the Founding Fathers would not have passed the fundamentalist standard of faith. If the Founders could travel through time, and were foolish enough to express their idiosyncratic views on religion too loudly, they would be harassed as atheists and devil worshipers in towns like Ecru.

Most of the Founders were deists. The Founders looked up to the leading intellectuals in Europe who were moved by the mathematics and physics of Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton, and the astronomical discoveries of Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei, men who displaced humanity from the center of the universe and raised questions about the account of creation in Genesis. Deism thrived in the new scientific environment of the 16th through the 18th centuries. Deists concluded that the universe was not a product of the capricious will of an absolute, deeply involved, and strict God. These scholars formed a notion of God as divine clockmaker. After finishing his work, the maker winds the clock and lets it run on its own. God does the same with his creation, deists claim.

The Founders were far from consistent. In times of stress they prayed for divine wisdom and assistance and often felt that their experiences were part of the divine plan. But the Founders for the most part valued reason over faith. To deists, the notion of miracles was an insult to the perfectly constructed universe God had created. The universe itself was a sufficient miracle, and voices coming from burning bushes and water being turned into wine were cheap carnival tricks by comparison.

Deists scoffed at “revealed” religion, believing that God could only be found through reason. As Thomas Paine, the author of the fiery tract “Common Sense” that helped inspire the Revolution, declared, “There is a happiness in Deism, when rightly understood, that is not to be found in any other system of religion. All other systems have something in them that either shock our reason, or are repugnant to it, and man, if he thinks at all, must stifle his reason in order to force himself to believe them. But in Deism our reason and our belief become happily united. The wonderful structure of the universe, and everything we behold in the system of the creation, prove to us, far better than books can do, the existence of a God, and at the same time proclaim His attributes." (Source, Thomas Paine, “Of the Religion of Deism Compared with the Christian Religion” in “The Writings of Thomas Paine,” Volume IV, p. 316.)

Deists scoffed at taking the Bible literally and questioned its divine inspiration. They believed in God, but thought that his personality, will, and sentiments could be determined only indirectly. This is why Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, and George Washington in his public references to religion, generally avoided words like “God” or “Jesus.”

In his initial draft of the Declaration, Jefferson mentioned “the God of Nature” and the “Creator,” typical phrases used by deists in referring to the divine. The Declaration contains only four references to God, all of them indirect. In addition to Jefferson’s two indirect references, the members of the Continental Congress added two other deism-influenced phrases: “the supreme judge of the world” and “divine providence.” The United States Constitution, adopted in 1789, however, does not mention God, Jesus, or the Bible, even through the usual deist euphemisms.

Washington was a deist in his language and his practice. While he invoked God in his speeches and his addresses to his soldiers, and attended church while president, he struck his contemporaries as not particularly religious. “I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which will prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation,” recalled Bishop William White, a friend of Washington who observed him up close during the president’s sojourns in Philadelphia and New York. (Source: George Boller, “George Washington and Religion,” Southern Methodist University Press, 1963, 32-33.)

As respected Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner observed in “Washington: The Indispensable Man,” the first president referred to God in typical deist fashion, referring to him only as the “Almighty Being” or “Providence.” Flexner sums up Washington’s beliefs this way: “Washington subscribed to the religion of the Enlightenment. He was a deist. Although not believing in the doctrines of the churches, he was convinced that a divine force, impossible to define, ruled the universe, and that this ‘Providence’ was good. (Source: James Thomas Flexner, “Washington: The Indispensable Man, Little, Brown and Company, 1974, 216.) Belief in such a vague conception of God does not imply that Washington was specifically Christian, and certainly does not lend credence to the idea that he would have seen America as a specifically Christian nation.

In spite of the myth promoted by the Christian Right today, the Founding Fathers were adamant that the government not become entangled with religion nor declare the supremacy of any of the world’s great faiths. For instance, Madison, the fourth president and (as mentioned before, the chief author of the Constitution) vigorously protested when some members of Congress proposed hiring a chaplain.

“Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the principles of freedom?” Madison asked in his “Detached Memoranda” of 1819. “In strictness, the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like the 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 national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of establishment . . .?” [Source: James Madison, “Detached Memoranda,” 1819, in Jack Rakove, ed., “James Madison: Writings,” Library of America, 1999, 762-764.]

The idea that the Founders wanted a particular religious identity for this country is hard to square with the fact that even the most religious of the Revolutionary generation, such as Ben Franklin and John Adams, doubted the reliability and accuracy of the Bible.

When Adams read a book, he would furiously scribble in the margins of the pages to debate and reflect on passages. While reading John Disney’s “Memoirs,” published in 1785, Adams wrote of the Bible, “What suspicions of interpolation, and indeed of fabrication, might not be confuted if only we had the originals [of the books of the Bible.]” Referring to the Bible’s authors, Adams wrote, “In an age . . . when fraud, forgery and perjury were considered lawful means of propagating truth . . . what may not be suspected?” (Source, James H. Hutson, “The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations,” Princeton University Press, 2005.”

Elsewhere, Adams expressed doubt as to whether modern readers of the Bible could trust the accuracy of the translations published so many years after the original manuscripts. “What do you call the ‘Bible?’” John Adams wrote to his son John Qunicy Adams. “ . . . What Bible? King James’s? The Hebrew? The Septuagint? The Vulgate? The Bible now translated or translating into Chinese, Indian, Negro, and all of the other languages of Europe, Asia and Africa? Which of the thirty thousand variantia are the Rule of Faith?” (Source: Letter, John Adams to John Quincy Adams, March 28, 1816, Adams Papers, microfilm reel 430, Library of Congress.)

Thomas Jefferson was particularly skeptical of biblical accuracy. “ . . . [I]n the book of Joshua we are told that the sun stood still for several hours,” Jefferson wrote to his friend Peter Carr “. . . [Y]ou are Astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis, as the earth does, should have stopped, should not by that sudden stoppage have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time have resumed its revolution, and that without a second prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities?” (Source: Letter, Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson,” Julian P. Boyd, Volume 12, pps. 15-16.)

Jefferson had no patience for biblical tales of miracles, which he saw as fairy tales believed only by the ignorant. In fact, he published his own “Jeffersonian Bible,” a version of the New Testament that omitted all tales of the supernatural and included only the moral teachings and precepts of Jesus. You can buy a copy of the Jeffersonian Bible at Amazon.com here: http://www.amazon.com/Life-Morals-Jesus-Nazareth-Jefferson/dp/1606202049/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270861446&sr=8-1)

Jefferson frequently expressed his disbelief in the virgin birth, arguing that Jesus was Mary’s “illegitimate” son. “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter,” Jefferson wrote in a letter to John Adams dated April 11, 1823. (Source: Dickinson W. Adams, “Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels.” Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 412.

Regarding Jesus, other Founding Fathers would fail to meet the Christianity litmus test of the good folks in Ecru, Mississippi. Ezra Stiles asked his friend Benjamin Franklin about his thoughts concerning Jesus’ nature. Franklin, like the other Founders, doubted whether biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth, words and deeds were reliable. “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of Morals, and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see,” Franklin wrote in a March 9, 1790 letter. “But I apprehend it has received various, corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon . . .” [Source, Letter, Benjamin Franklin to Ezra Stiles, Albert H. Smyth, ed., “The Writings of Benjamin Franklin,” MacMillan Company, Volume 10, p. 84.]


Generally speaking, the Founders decided that Christianity had no superior claims to moral thought than enlightened pagan writers, Hindu scripture, or their fellow Deists. John Adams, in a letter to Jefferson dated December 25, 1813, asked, “Where is to be found Theology more orthodox or Phylosophy more profound than in the Introduction to the Shast[r]a [a Hindu Treatise]?” Jefferson, speaking of French atheist philosophers, suggested to Thomas Law that “Diderot, Dalembert, D’Hollbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the best of men. Their virtue then must have had some other foundation than the love of God.” [Source: Letter, Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814, Adams, “Jefferson’s Extracts,” pp. 355-356.]

It is possible that the Founding Fathers considered themselves Christians in the sense that they believed in the Golden Rule, accepted the teaching of the Ten Commandments and the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount, and embraced Jesus’ message of service to the poor and the oppressed. However, they doubted that Jesus was the son of God, they didn’t believe in the miracle stories in the Bible, and they regarded Christianity as not all that different from other sources of wisdom.

Their Christianity was inclusive, their values honored a relatively wide degree of opposing beliefs, and they seemed to have not believed that Christianity represented the only path to salvation. The Founding Fathers’ Christianity would probably be rejected as secular humanism by many conservative evangelicals of today. When modern-day conservatives say that the founders established a “Christian” nation, we should repeat the question asked earlier. Which Christianity?


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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