Founding Fathers and Religion

Fascination with the founders of our nation is a unique attribute of Americans. We not only study them, we seek their counsel and pillage their opinions for insight into modern problems, hoping to find shortcuts to solutions.

Gordon S. Wood, in his Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, explains it so:

-"The identities of the other nations, say, French or German, are lost in the mists of time and usually taken for granted...But Americans became a nation in 1776, and thus, in order to know how we are, we need to know who our founders are. The United States was founded on a set of beliefs and not, as were other nations, on a common ethnicity, language, or religion. Since we are not a nation in any traditional sense of the term, in order to establish our nationhood, we have to reaffirm and reinforce periodically the values of the men who declared independence from Great Britain and framed the Constitution."

The Founders were amazing thinkers who wrote so voluminously on such a variety of subjects that we still find in their writings valuable and applicable ideas for our modern world. We should seek their counsel. Unfortunately, though perhaps not uniquely, certainly prevalently, Americans tend to treat the Founders' aggregate ideals as dictums from a hive mind. Many of us behave as if the Founders sallied forth in unwavering solidarity with prescient foresight of the world superpower we would become.


They recognized that being hanged for treason in 1776 was an all too possible fate. Beyond that, many delegates to the Constitutional Convention believed the Constitution would fail within twenty years. Even Washington referred to it as the "great experiment." Some delegates refused to even sign the final document. It was, and is, the result of endless compromises that, by the end of its creation, almost everyone involved was displeased with.

After the Revolutionary War, there was very little solidarity among the Founders. They hurled vitriolic attacks at one another that would shrivel the most vicious of today's political ad campaigns. John Adams hated Alexander Hamilton, famously calling him the "bastard brat of a Scotch peddler." Adams liked then hated then liked Thomas Jefferson, whose backstabbing intrigue caused Adams to lose the 1800 Presidential election. By the end of his second term as President, George Washington had washed his hands of his fellow Virginian Founders Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, George Mason and Edmond Randolph. The author of Common Sense, Thomas Paine, finished off his miserable life hating Washington and just about everyone else. Unable to withstand the constant insults (deserved as they may have been), Vice President Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton to death in a duel.

Just as with any collection of people, we can't narrow the Founders' views into a consensus. On some issues they did generally agree. The Bill of Rights is a list of individual rights that nearly all of them endorsed. Virtually all the founders agreed on what role religion should play in government policies. None. This is the one thing that far too many Christians deny in the face of common knowledge. No matter how much Bill O'Reilly, John McCain, and fundamentalists say the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian ideals, it is still not true.

I watched the O'Reilly factor when he discussed a school principal who removed Christmas decorations from the school. O'Reilly said several times throughout the program that our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian ideals, as if to reinforce by repetition. Worse still, every day, I am flooded with emails from Christians who want to teach divine intervention in science class because we were "founded on Christianity." Nevermind the lack of scientific evidence for miracles.

The most incredible assertion of ignorance came when Virginia Congressman Randy Forbes spoke to congress about the Christian character of our government. He actually brought some evidence, though his conclusions are warped by Christian zealotry. He brings up several instances of religious associations with government made over the course of over two hundred years. I'll speak of his comments relating only to the foundation of our country and the Founders. Forbes said:

-"When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, it ended the revolutionary war and birthed this nation. The signers of that document made clear that it began with this phrase, "in the name of the most holy and undivided trinity."

-"When our constitution was signed, the signers made sure that they punctuated the end of it by saying, "in the year of our lord, 1787."

-"President George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson...indicated how the bible and Judeo-Christian principles were so important to this nation."

Even though his argument hinged on the idea that our nation originated as a Christian one, those comments were the only attention he gave the Founders in his speech. That one line in the Treaty of Paris is an odd choice of evidence and I will start with that. First off, it was written in 1783. Our constitution wasn't written until 1787, so it doesn't really have much to do with the foundation of our current government, but, because it was signed by three of our founders, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay, we'll take a closer look.

"In the name of the most holy and undivided trinity" is an opening or closing line, a courtesy. It is a statement that really has nothing to do with the body of the document. Even I say "Thank God," but I am not literally thanking a deity. We all know what "thank God" means. It's a common phrase, just as signing a document with the blessing of God was common practice then. That being said, John Jay and John Adams were extremely devout Christians who both could have wanted that line added for personal reasons. Let's take a look at these three men, their roles in the government's foundation and what their views were on Christianity in government.

I'll start with Adams because he is the most complex. He was absent from the Constitutional Convention, being in Europe at the time, but he was an influential voice of the generation. His Thoughts on Government was widely read and the final draft of the U.S. Constitution reflected many of his views. Similarly, he had no direct effect on the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1790, which, of course, secures religious freedom for all. Adams believed whole-heartedly in equal Constitutional protection for all religions, but he wasn't a protector of atheism. He used religion as a political weapon in the 1800 election, claiming that Jefferson would favor atheistic laws. However, his views on religious freedom of all creeds was pretty clear. He wished reason was the guiding force of Christians and despised the concept of "miracles." He believed religious fundamentalists and zealots were more dangerous than any other faction. Even though there are occasional inconsistencies, Adams' writings reveal a strong desire for church and state separation. I will only include his comments in direct reference to the United States and religion. Here's what he had to say on religious freedoms in the United States:

-"Thirteen governments thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without the pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind." A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America

-"The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this as an era in their history."

-"We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions...shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power...we expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society."

Benjamin Franklin was the only one of the group that actually attended the Constitutional Convention. He was not Christian in the modern fundamentalist definition. He doubted Christ's divinity and thought the Bible and the worship of it were corrupted by time and the diabolical nature of priests. At one point during the Convention, he asked that the delegates say prayer. His motion was denied. Hamilton warned that its commencement might lead the public to form "unpleasant animadversions." However, when it came to the intermingling of government policy and established religion, his views were clearly stated throughout his life.

-"When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one." Poor Richard's Almanac, 1754

-"I have found Christian dogma unintelligible. Early in life I absented myself from Christian assemblies." Toward the Mystery

Franklin was religious. He believed that "God governs in the affairs of men," but he certainly didn't think of him in a Judeo-Christian way.

John Jay was a dissenter from the common fold. He believed we were a Christian nation, but he was intolerant of Catholicism. He wished to pass laws preventing Catholics from holding office in New York, even though he was the governor of a state that expressly forbade the favor of any religion. New York Law stated "the free exercise and employment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall for ever hereafter be allowed within this State to all mankind." Nonetheless, Jay said this: "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers." It is important to note two things about Jay, (1) he was not at the Constitutional Convention but (2) he provided a minor contribution the Federalist, probably the most influential political text in history and directly responsible for the ratification of the Constitution. In his contribution to the Federalist, he made no mention of religion. In essence, his religious views were uninfluential on the foundation of the country.

Because Forbes thought it prudent to include the courtesies in a treaty as sufficient evidence of our Christian foundation, I'll finish off this section with a quote from the body of another treaty. Section eleven of the Treaty of Tripoli, written in 1796, during George Washington's second term as president, and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1797 and signed by President John Adams reads thus:

-"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 Musselmen [Muslims] and as said States have never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

There was no public outcry about the treaty. No congressmen like Forbes complained to the Speaker of the House about it. It was routine--commonly accepted. It was also not that big of a deal in religious circles, just like the treaty of Paris was not that big of a deal.

The second example from Forbes about "in the year of our Lord" is a silly, silly point. A.D. stands for 'Anno Domini,' translated from Latin to mean "in the year of our Lord." The Founders did not yet have our now commonly accepted BCE and CE year designations ("Before Common Era" and "Common Era.") I personally still use BC and AD because that's what I grew up with. It is in no way an endorsement of Christianity on my part.

The final quote from Forbes is by far the most befuddling. He says George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams indicated the importance of Judeo-Christian values to this nation. Because I've already quoted Adams, I'll provide quotes from the other two.

George Washington wrote: "If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitutional Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any religious society, certainly I would have never placed my signature to it. And if I could now conceive that the general government might ever be administered as to render liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one will be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny and every species of religious persecution."

Thomas Jefferson wrote: "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, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that the 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 and state. (Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from presenting even occasional performances of devotion presented indeed legally where an Executive is the legal head of a national church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect)."

Those two quotes, from the most influential Founders, somehow, did not already put a definitive end to this ridiculous debate. Jefferson and Madison made it their mission to include religious freedom for all religions and especially the non-religious. Speaking of which, what did Madison, "Father of the Constitution," who had more influence over the content in the first amendment than any other man, have to say about its meaning? A lot.

-"An alliance or coalition between Government and religion cannot be too carefully guarded against...Every new and successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance...religion and government will exist in greater purity, without (rather) than with the aid of government. Letter to Livingston.

-"What influences, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishment had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people."

At this point, I'm not sure any more quotes are necessary to definitively put an end to the nonsense brought forth in congress, but I can't resist quoting the one thing that fundamentalists Christians usually forget:

-"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 redress of grievances." First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.


  1. Actually Adams is one of only two people to sign the Bill of Rights, and your quote:

    An alliance or coalition between Government and religion cannot be too carefully guarded against......Every new and successful example therefore of a PERFECT SEPARATION between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance...religion and government will exist in greater purity, without (rather) than with the aid of government. [James Madison in a letter to Livingston, 1822

    I believe says something different than implied.

    Madison is talking about an ALLIANCE btwn religion and govt. such as the church of england, with the state.

    The quote has nothing to do with government promoting religion; Madison did promote Christianity while in office.

  2. Adams signed the Bill of Rights as President of the Senate, not as an author. By Sept. 1789, Adams had stopped participating in Senate debates because the Senate believed his participation violated the separation of power between the executive and legislative branches. His true contribution to the Bill of Rights came from his Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

    Madison's personal religious beliefs are beside the point. He believed that no office or government body could favor any religion. He and Jefferson were of one mind on this. I don't think I can misinterpret "perfect separation."

  3. I'm uneasy when religion mixes with politics--both get corrupted in the service of the other. I appreciate your overview--I'm a John Adams fan, sort of--and Franklin is always interesting.

    Of course our nation was "founded" on Judeo-Christian principles: After all, we are an extension of Western civilization. But religious freedom can be ensured only when we maintain separation of church and state. In terms of the structure of a nation, we need to look more closely at the Magna Carta--now there's a founding document for you.

    By the way, thanks for commenting on my post on "The Professionals." You're right: It's almost amiable in its attitude, despite all that grit and lust.


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