Since colonial and early republic Christians were no more uniform in belief than today’s Christians are, we can dismiss the claim that the United States was intended to be Christian because the general population at the time of independence was Christian. But what about the position that the leaders in the struggle for independence—names that every American kid immediately recognizes—were Christian and intended the republic to reflect their religious convictions? This is the argument to which the Christian Right most commonly appeals. Marshall, Barton, and Dunbar champion it with gusto, as do dozens of other evangelical authors such as John Eidsmore (Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers, 1995); Tim LaHaye of apocalyptic Left Behind series fame (Faith of Our Founding Fathers, 1994); and Gary DeMar (America’s Christian Heritage, 2003). As we’ve seen, it’s also received wisdom for a majority of Americans.
The problem, as scholar after scholar has pointed out—how often must it be repeated before the reality breaks through the myth?—is that it simply isn’t true. The Founding Fathers weren’t all Christian. Some, of course, were: Patrick Henry (Episcopalian), John Hancock (Congregationalist), John Jay (Episcopalian), and Sam Adams (Congregationalist), for example, were all devout and pretty conventional Christians. But the big players in the founding of the United States—such men as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and probably Alexander Hamilton—weren’t. Each of them was much more comfortable with a deistic understanding of God than a Christian one. For them, the deity was an impersonal First Cause who created a rationally patterned natural order and who was best worshiped through the exercise of reason and virtue. Most of them may have admired the ethical teachings of Jesus (although Paine conspicuously did not), but all of them loathed and rejected the priestcraft and superstition they associated with Christianity.
Despite this, the Christian Right insists on adopting these men (aside from Paine) as Christian founders. The usual justification is that each of them (again, except Paine) belonged to an established Christian denomination. But as we’ve already seen, formal membership by itself wasn’t then (or now) a fail-safe measure of an individual’s religious beliefs. As David Holmes compellingly argues in his 2006 Faiths of the Founding Fathers, other factors—such as the way in which the founders referred to God, opinions they expressed in personal correspondence, and their involvement in church life—must be considered as well. None of the founders, for example, used conventional Christian language when writing or speaking about God. Instead, the terms they favored—Supreme Architect, Author of Nature, First Cause, Nature’s God, Superattending Power—were unmistakably deistic. (One of the Christian Right’s most telling blind spots is its failure to pick up on the founders’ obviously non-Christian nomenclature.) Another indicator of their lack of conventional Christian commitment is the fact that while all of them had been baptized as infants, an initiation that of course made them nominally Christian, none who were members of denominations that offered the sacrament of Confirmation sought it as adults. Moreover, they generally did not take Communion when it was offered, nor did they typically involve themselves in church activities. Even when they did, it was no clear signal that they were orthodox Christians. George Washington, for example, served on the vestry in several Episcopalian parishes. But he avoided Confirmation and Communion, never used give-away Christian terms such as Lord or Redeemer, and rarely even referred to Jesus by name. Finally, none of them gave the slightest hint in their personal letters or diaries that they considered themselves committed Christians.
The obvious conclusion is that it’s a stretch to call the leading founders “Christians,” particularly of the evangelical sort. Most of them may not have been contemptuously anti-Christian (although Paine certainly was, with Jefferson a close second), but neither did they have much use for Christianity. They had so little regard for its central tenets, in fact, that they couldn’t square it with their consciences to salt their public statements with even an occasional Christian phrase. In this way they displayed an integrity that few vote-hungry politicians in our day feel moved to emulate. Revealingly, only a handful of their contemporaries seemed particularly bothered by their obvious indifference to Christianity, and those who made a big deal of it generally did so more for political reasons—as when Federalists attacked the “infidel” Jefferson in the presidential elections of 1800 and 1804—than from any sense of outraged orthodoxy. Then as now, what pretended to be a religious battle was often a political one.
Perhaps the most obvious way in which the founders intentionally used non-Christian language is in their drafting of the nation’s two defining documents, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. In the Constitution, no mention whatsoever of God is made except in the document’s date (“Done ... in the year of our Lord ...”), an inexplicable oversight if its framers intended it to lay the foundation for a Christian nation. The Declaration of Independence does use religious language, but the religion is obviously Deism rather than Christianity. God is referred to as “Nature’s God,” the “Creator” of the physical “Laws of Nature” in addition to the “unalienable [moral] Rights” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To interpret the document as even suggestively Christian is sheer fantasy or worse. On the contrary, both it and the Constitution clearly serve as precedents for the famous passage in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli—one which the Christian Right loves to hate—which affirms that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The treaty, which sealed a routine diplomatic agreement between the U.S. and the Muslim state of Tripolitania, was unanimously ratified by the Senate and publicly endorsed and signed by President John Adams. That it was passed without debate or dissent attests to the fact that neither the president nor senators found its denial of a Christian foundation to the nation objectionable.
The claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, therefore, just doesn’t ring historically true. But as with all counterfeit coins, there’s enough genuine metal mixed in with the paste to fool unsuspecting consumers. To deny the obviously false claim that the founders of the United States intended it to be Christian doesn’t imply that certain sentiments and values held by Christians played no role in the nation’s founding. As we’ve seen, the Puritans endorsed equality and self-government. Baptists and Quakers, probably because of their sometimes savage persecution by Puritans, championed the separation of church and state. Deistic nominal Christians, such as Bishop James Madison, embraced the political ideals of tolerance and republicanism. But none of these beliefs are uniquely Christian, and in fact they’re much more obviously at home in Enlightenment liberal thought than eighteenth-century orthodox Christian theology. One could have held them as a Christian, but holding them didn’t necessarily mean one was a Christian. Such beliefs could just as well have been held by a Deist or even a thoroughgoing secularist. Nonetheless, to the extent that some Christians held them, it is undeniable that Christian-owned principles were part of the convergence of beliefs that defined the new nation. This is, however, a far cry from saying that the nation was explicitly built upon Christian principles.
But let’s concede, just for the sake of the argument, what is patently false: that the nation in fact was founded on Christian principles and intended by its founders to be Christian. The obvious perplexity that then arises is why the Christian Right is so convinced that a “socialistic, secularistic, and humanistic mindset” has jerked the nation up by its Christian roots. The founding documents framed by our “Christian” forebears are still venerated today. The same protection of religious liberty endorsed by our “Christian” founders is still fiercely championed by political leaders and the courts. So what’s been uprooted? What’s been lost that our “Christian” founders put in place?
The answer, of course, is that nothing has been lost, and the Christian Right knows it. What evangelicals really want is something that never was, and that’s an explicitly sectarian statement of commitment to Christ worked into the warp and woof of national law and public policy. What they want is the Christian theocracy that the founders explicitly rejected. For all their political thundering against the intrusive ways of “big government,” what evangelicals yearn for is strict legal codification of their version of Christian values. What never occurs to the Christian Right is that if the founders in fact had been Christians intending to create a commonwealth faithful to Jesus’s teachings, the United States today would be a nation quite different from what evangelicals think it should be. There would be no standing army, no divide between rich and poor, no ethnic hatred or closed borders, no persecution of religious dissent, no national chauvinism, a lot less holier-than-thou finger-pointing, and a lot more forgiveness and compassion.
Now, that would be a shining city built on a hill.
"It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world... and at peace with myself."
Dulce Bellum Inexpertis - Erasmus
DrPostman BsD, the Unhappener Extrodinair
Klink lop guest User ID: 99539 06-17-2012 05:55 AM
RE: The Founders Loathed Superstition and We Were Never a Christian Nation
LoP GuestWrote: (06-17-2012 06:49 AM)
maybe you need to review the writings and speeches that were given by the founding fathers and quite taking the word of a group with an agenda
make up your own mind
Who are you addressing? I've read much of the writings of Jefferson and
Franklin and those two men were Deists.
LoP GuestWrote: (06-17-2012 06:51 AM)
I don't really even need to read what you wrote. You only need to read Washington's letters to know you are full of sh!t.
Congratulations! You're now practicing Contempt Prior To Investigation.
Truly an act born of ignorance.
So, this isn't for you, but for those who do take the time to read all sides
of a debate here's some notes on Washington:
"Much of the myth of Washington's alleged Christianity came from Mason Weems influential book, "Life of Washington." The story of the cherry tree comes from this book and it has no historical basis. Weems, a Christian minister portrayed Washington as a devout Christian, yet Washington's own diaries show that he rarely attended Church.
Washington revealed almost nothing to indicate his spiritual frame of mind, hardly a mark of a devout Christian. In his thousands of letters, the name of Jesus Christ never appears. He rarely spoke about his religion, but his Freemasonry experience points to a belief in deism. Washington's initiation occurred at the Fredericksburg Lodge on 4 November 1752, later becoming a Master mason in 1799, and remained a freemason until he died.
To the United Baptist Churches in Virginia in May, 1789, Washington said that every man "ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience."
RE: The Founders Loathed Superstition and We Were Never a Christian Nation
LoP GuestWrote: (06-17-2012 07:29 AM)
This country has been a "Christian" nation for hundreds of years. There is no denying that fact. Even today, it is still a Christian nation. Even tomorrow.
Unlike governments of the past, the American Fathers set up a government divorced from religion. The establishment of a secular government did not require a reflection to themselves about its origin; they knew this as an unspoken given. However, as the U.S. delved into international affairs, few foreign nations knew about the intentions of America. For this reason, an insight from at a little known but legal document written in the late 1700s explicitly reveals the secular nature of the United States to a foreign nation. Officially called the "Treaty of peace and friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli, of Barbary," most refer to it as simply the Treaty of Tripoli. In Article 11, it states:
"As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."
The preliminary treaty began with a signing on 4 November, 1796 (the end of George Washington's last term as president). Joel Barlow, the American diplomat served as counsel to Algiers and held responsibility for the treaty negotiations. Barlow had once served under Washington as a chaplain in the revolutionary army. He became good friends with Paine, Jefferson, and read Enlightenment literature. Later he abandoned Christian orthodoxy for rationalism and became an advocate of secular government. Barlow, along with his associate, Captain Richard O'Brien, et al, translated and modified the Arabic version of the treaty into English. From this came the added Amendment 11. Barlow forwarded the treaty to U.S. legislators for approval in 1797. Timothy Pickering, the secretary of state, endorsed it and John Adams concurred (now during his presidency), sending the document on to the Senate. The Senate approved the treaty on June 7, 1797, and officially ratified by the Senate with John Adams signature on 10 June, 1797. All during this multi-review process, the wording of Article 11 never raised the slightest concern. The treaty even became public through its publication in The Philadelphia Gazette on 17 June 1797. http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/summe...cular.html
"It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world... and at peace with myself."
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