As we approach the celebrations of our country’s birth, thoughts turn to our Founding Fathers and their courage. These men risked it all to forge a new nation. This had never been done before. What those men did was unprecedented and their very lives were on the line because of it.
In their eagerness to have the Founders on “their side,” modern Christians try to promote the idea that America is meant to be a Christian nation. But the Founding Fathers — those men who formed and nurtured this nation — were not all Christian. Most were free-thinkers, agnostics and Deists. No matter what their religious leanings, however, they fought for a secular state. They saw how Europe had fared with theocracies and state-sponsored religion and wanted none of it here.
The view that America is a Christian nation is nothing more than fantasy and revisionist history on the part of one religion. This religion has forced itself onto the state: from coinage to the Pledge of Allegiance, we see its fingerprints. This religion is shown deference in ways other religions have to fight for. But they still try to rewrite history to claim the Founding Fathers for their own religion.
We know better. These are just some of the many quotes from the Founders with regards to the separation of church and state.
Thomas Paine – Like most of the Founders, he was a Deist who rejected orthodox Christianity. He said, instead, that his religion was “to do good.”
“As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of government to protect all conscientious protesters thereof, and I know of no other business government has to do therewith. ” ~~ Common Sense, 1776.
“Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.” ~~ The Rights of Man, 1791-1792
“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”
Thomas Jefferson – Jefferson was a Deist, though he did have respect for Jesus as a teacher of moral truths. He did not attend church and rejected the Bible’s teachings. Many of his contemporary Christians dismissed Jefferson as a heretic.
“… 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 and State.” ~~ Letter to the Danbury Baptists, January 1, 1802
“[E]very one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U.S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.” ~~ Letter to Rev. Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808
“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.” ~~ Notes on the State of Virginia , 1781 – 1785
“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.” ~~ letter to Alexander von Humboldt, December 6, 1813
“The Government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian Religion.” 1797, The Treaty of Tripoli, initiated by President Washington, signed by President John Adams, and approved by the Senate of the United States
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 event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses. ~~ “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America,” 1787-88
Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a 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” 1787-1788
George Washington – He occasionally attended churches as an adult, including the Episcopalian/Anglican church, a Roman Catholic church, and at least one Quaker meeting. Washington never espoused a formal religious affiliation as an adult, considering himself a Deist.
“We have abundant reason to rejoice, that, in this land, the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition, and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. In this enlightened age, & in this land of equal liberty, it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining & holding the highest offices that are known in the United States.” ~~ Letter to the members of The New Church in Baltimore, January 1793
“If I could conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded, that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”
~~ Letter to the United Baptist Chamber of Virginia, May 1789
“I cannot conceive otherwise than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that He is even infinitely above it.” ~~Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion, 1728
“When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself 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.”
James Madison – A Deist, Madison sometimes attended an Episcopalian/Anglican church. He strongly opposed efforts by church leaders to make the new nation a theocracy. Instead, he worked with Baptists to ensure religious liberty for all and to maintain the separation of church and state.
“The members of a Govt as such can in no sense, be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot form an ecclesiastical Assembly, Convocation, Council, or Synod, and as such issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people. In their individual capacities, as distinct from their official station, they might unite in recommendations of any sort whatever, in the same manner as any other individuals might do. But then their recommendations ought to express the true character from which they emanate.” ~~ Notes on Government Issued Religious Proclamations
“[T]he number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.” ~~ -Letter to Robert Walsh, March 2, 1819
“The civil government … functions with complete success … by the total separation of the Church from the State.”
~ Writings, 1819
“Because the Bill [to institute an assessment to fund teachers of Christianity] implies either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent Judge of Religious Truth; or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages, and throughout the world: the second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” ~~ Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, 1785
“[I]n politics as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”
“The [president] has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction. . . .”
If you are interested in reading more of the Founding Fathers’ thoughts on religion and politics, here are a few documents you will find interesting.
The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine
George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport
Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists
Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments
Franklin’s Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion
The Founding Fathers were not perfect. They were men, nothing more, nothing less. But they were learned men, steeped in the knowledge of the Age of Enlightenment. They were careful to create a secular state. It is an affront to their bravery, their hard work and their love of this country to claim that they meant it to be Christian.