Thursday, January 06, 2011

A Christian Nation? The Founding Fathers Didn't Think So

There's a claim by the Christian Right and some members of the Tea Party movement that the United States was consciously and deliberately created as a Christian nation to spread the Gospel to the new world and create a beacon of light and salvation to the rest of the world. They haven't much evidence to back up this claim; just some scattered quotes from people like George Washington, made in their private capacity and not as spokespersons for the government or the nation.

Granted, we had plenty of people settle here in the early days in a quest to believe and practice those beliefs away from the oppression of the established churches of Europe, but they weren't the only people to leave Europe and settle here. There were plenty of people who were only nominal members of any church, or followers of the Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire who emphasized reason as the primary source of authority and knowledge. Or they were just farmers and trappers and whatnot who had no real use for religion in their life and were happy to go about their daily lives and work without need for religion. There was a lot of philosophical diversity in the early colonies which became the United States.

And in fact the the lawyers and merchants who formed the intellectual class from whom the founding fathers of this nation emerged were mostly followers of the Enlightenment, men such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Hancock, the Adams's of Boston, and Benjamin Franklin, self-declared Deists who believed in a higher power but denied the legitimacy of any formal religion. Even that ultimate gentleman farmer cum soldier, George Washington, considered himself a Deist. And it was these people who wrote our founding documents and created a purely secular, not religious, government.

The U.S. Constitution is the rock-solid foundation of the government of the United States; it establishes and guides our whole form of governance, from the legislative to the judicial to the administrative. It is, to use a Judeo-Christian reference, the Ten Commandments of the nation. It was written by men dedicated to reason and the Age of Enlightenment (principally James Madison, who himself was a protegé of Thomas Jefferson, probably the prime advocate of Enlightenment thinking, along with Benjamin Franklin, among the founding fathers), and it never mentions God, Jesus Christ, the Church, or the Bible. Never. Not even once. It only actually mentions matters pertaining to religion once, in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The key phrase in that amendment is known in U.S. jurisprudence as the Establishment Clause - "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." - which at the very beginning of our national existence says that the government cannot sponsor or enforce a religious belief and practice on the American people. There are people who argue that it does no such thing, that the amendment only says that the government can't favor one religion over the other. But the evidence, from the very records of the Constitutional Convention itself, along with the writings of the men who wrote the document, says otherwise.

The Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service (CRS) has released an annotated Constitution, and the Columbia University Law School has put a hyperlinked version online, which you can find here. The annotations quote the debates and discussions entered into at the convention, as well as the documents which express the ideas of those attending. The annotation page for the First Amendment can be found here, but I want to include passages from the "overview" section along with the footnotes for that section (included in brackets after the passage) that speak directly to the matter.
Madison’s original proposal for a bill of rights provision concerning religion read: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretence, infringed." [1 Annals of Congress 434 (June 8, 1789).]

The language was altered in the House to read: “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience." [The committee appointed to consider Madison’s proposals, and on which Madison served, with Vining as chairman, had rewritten the religion section to read: “No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.” After some debate during which Madison suggested that the word “national” might be inserted before the word “religion” as “point[ing] the amendment directly to the object it was intended to prevent,” the House adopted a substitute reading: “Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience.” 1 Annals of Congress 729–31 (August 15, 1789). On August 20, on motion of Fisher Ames, the language of the clause as quoted in the text was adopted. Id. at 766. According to Madison’s biographer, “[t]here can be little doubt that this was written by Madison.” I. Brant, James Madison—Father of the Constitution 1787–1800 at 271 (1950).]

In the Senate, the section adopted read: “Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith, or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion, . . ." [This text, taken from the Senate Journal of September 9, 1789, appears in 2 B. Schwartz (ed.), The Bill of Rights: A Documentary History 1153 (1971). It was at this point that the religion clauses were joined with the freedom of expression clauses.]

It was in the conference committee of the two bodies, chaired by Madison, that the present language was written with its some[p.970]what more indefinite “respecting” phraseology. [1 Annals of Congress 913 (September 24, 1789). The Senate concurred the same day. See I. Brant, James Madison—Father of the Constitution 1787–1800, 271–72 (1950).]

Debate in Congress lends little assistance in interpreting the religion clauses; Madison’s position, as well as that of Jefferson who influenced him, is fairly clear... [During House debate, Madison told his fellow Members that “he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any Manner contrary to their conscience.” 1 Annals of Congress 730 (August 15, 1789). That his conception of “establishment” was quite broad is revealed in his veto as President in 1811 of a bill which in granting land reserved a parcel for a Baptist Church in Salem, Mississippi; the action, explained President Madison, “comprises a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.”’ 8 The Writings of James Madison (G. Hunt. ed.) 132–33 (1904). Madison’s views were no doubt influenced by the fight in the Virginia legislature in 1784–1785 in which he successfully led the opposition to a tax to support teachers of religion in Virginia and in the course of which he drafted his “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” setting forth his thoughts. Id. at 183–91; I. Brant, James Madison—The Nationalist 1780–1787, 343–55 (1948). Acting on the momentum of this effort, Madison secured passage of Jefferson’s “Bill for Religious Liberty”. Id. at 354; D. Malone, Jefferson the Virginian 274–280 (1948). The theme of the writings of both was that it was wrong to offer public support of any religion in particular or of religion in general.]
Obviously Madison and the others were intent on keeping the U.S. government out of the business of religion. Note especially this quote from Madison in the Annals of Congress:
During House debate, Madison told his fellow Members that “he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any Manner contrary to their conscience.” 1 Annals of Congress 730 (August 15, 1789).
This is a clear declaration of a hands-off policy toward religion by the government, expressed by the architects of the document which is the foundation of that government.

There have been many acts by the government which have highlighted the thinking of these founding fathers, a philosophy that has come to be known as the "separation of Church and State", but perhaps one of the clearest actions on that philosophy came early in the history of the U.S. government with the 1797 treaty with Tripoli in the Barbary States of north Africa.

Joel Barlow was the consul-general to the Barbary states of Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis; he was assigned by Commissioner Plenipotentiary of the U.S. David Humphries to broker a treaty with Tripoli in 1796. Most of the treaty concerns trade agreements, tariffs, rights-of-way for shipping, etc.; mundane stuff. But Article 11 of the treaty makes a bold statement regarding the attitude of the U.S. toward the religion of Tripoli and the other Barbary 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 tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan 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.
There it is, right out in the open in black and white on an official document of the U.S. government: "...the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion..." In 1796, only seven years after the ratification of the Constitution. You can't get any clearer than that.

There's been an argument advanced that Article 11 says no such thing in the original Arabic document, and that it was a late insertion by the Dey of Algiers to allay the fears of the Pasha of Tripoli. But that's irrelevant, a straw man put up by opponents of church-state separation. No matter what the Arabic document says, Joel Barlow's English translation - including that eleventh article - is what was presented to President John Adams, who then presented it to the Senate, in printed copy and read aloud on the floor of the Senate. These were men who were in at the beginning of the nation, many of them former members of the Continental Congress, signers of the Declaration of Independence, and members of the Congress which wrote the Constitution. They ratified the treaty by unanimous vote on June 7, 1797, and President Adams signed it. They had all heard and read that phrase - "...the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion..." - and no one objected; in fact no one said anything at all about it. Why? Because this is what they believed.

So those who would want to rewrite our history to conform to their particular, sectarian ideology, led most notably by David Barton (who interestingly has no degree in history but rather a bachelor's degree in religious education from Oral Roberts University) and his Wallbuilders organization, haven't a leg to stand on. By their own private writings and in the national documents they inspired and helped create, the "Founding Fathers" of the United States were not intent on creating a "Christian nation", but rather a fully secular government with a clear hands-off policy toward religion. There's really no qauestion of that at all.

© 2011 by A. Roy Hilbinger. Images owned by the United States and are public domain.


  1. Very interesting Roy and the tenet for most Western Constitutions I think. Politics and religion should always remain separate. I cringe when I see politicians bringing God into the political equation.

  2. Excellent post, Roy. Some of those on the Christian Right need to do their homework.

  3. here, here

    this post should be made into a white paper and distributed widely.....unfortunately, as often the case way too many believe only what they WANT to believe and no matter if their beliefs are a poppycock, they will insist otherwise!

    one of my favorite bumber stickers has got to be" "the problem with the christian right is that its neither" or something like that....

    thanks roy....

  4. thanks for the documentation. I knew but knew not where to look.

  5. Although the Brits & The States have much in common, one of the biggest differences between us is how our politicans use religion.
    In Britain it is considered Political Suicide to profess great religious faith.Even that famous god-botherer Tony Blair kept his strong christian beliefs very quiet while in power.
    Given the history you outline above, it's ironic that American politicians (both 'Right' & 'not-so-Right'?)wrap themselves in Jesus's Skirts.
    It seems to be done with a cynical & knowing purpose.Divide & Rule.Politics seems to aim at the
    disenfranchising of as many people as possible.The Bible -Bashers seem to want to conjure up as many 'demons' as possible.Which is sad & a million miles away from the purpose of The Founding Fathers Journey.
    Excellent Post Roy!

  6. Another here who feels that politics and religion should be kept separate (tho' a mutual healthy respect ain't a bad thing.)

    I'm not sure which is the more offensive - a politician telling me how to worship, or a religious leader telling me how to vote. Ack!!

  7. Now, Roy, you're just being a silly goose. Why should we need to refer to all those documents when there are plenty of people here and now who know in their hearts (and ours, too, apparently) what the founding fathers really wanted?

    (Yes, of course I'm kidding.)

    We also have to consider that infamous 18 1/2-minute gap in The Jefferson Tapes, too, now don't we? That could have been when they discussed making this a Christian nation.

    Terrific post. And "The U.S. Constitution is... the Ten Commandments of the nation" is a great line!