The English philosopher John Locke proposed two revolutionary ideas about religion: One, that it is a matter of individual choice – not the decision of the state or the community. Two, if you don’t approve of your neighbor’s choices, too bad! Live and let live and keep the peace.
But somewhat later, on this side of the Atlantic, the great American thinker, Thomas Paine, would take issue with Locke. Paine well knew that European ‘tolerance’ carried the taint of condescension — as if it were a ‘Gift’ that the powerful could bestow upon the ‘less worthy’ (and which they could just as easily take back). This was not good enough.
George Washington, to whom the book was dedicated, agreed with Paine. No religion in America, Washington insisted, was to be privileged, and none was to be demeaned.
Of course, many people assume that when Washington, and other Founders, said things like this, they were really only talking about freedom of religion amongst various Christian sects. After all, the argument goes, they knew little or nothing about other religions and weren’t really including them.
This assumption is entirely false.
Thomas Jefferson, writing about the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom, states in his Autobiography:
“Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting ‘Jesus Christ,’ so that it would read ‘A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;’ the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindu and Infidel of every denomination.”
James Madison, the principle author of the Constitution as well as the First Amendment, had earlier protested to a proposed Virginia bill that would have used taxpayer money to pay “Teachers of the Christian Religion” (i.e., Clergy):
“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”
Clearly, then, they knew all about other religions.
Even so, another assumption insists, at least we know that the Founders were practicing Christians, much like contemporary American Christians.
This assumption, too, is false.
“I have found Christian dogma unintelligible. Early in life I absented myself from Christian assemblies.” – Benjamin Franklin
According to Franklin’s friend, the Unitarian Minister Joseph Priestley, “It is much to be lamented that a man of Franklin’s general good character and great influence should have been an unbeliever in Christianity, and also have done as much as he did to make others unbelievers.”
“The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity.” – John Adams
“It has been fifty and sixty years since I read the Apocalypse, and then I considered it merely the ravings of a maniac.” – Thomas Jefferson
“I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology.” – Thomas Jefferson
There is no mention anywhere of Jesus Christ in the extensive correspondence of George Washington. Historian Barry Schwartz writes: “George Washington’s practice of Christianity was limited and superficial because he was not himself a Christian… He repeatedly declined the church’s sacraments. Never did he take communion, and when his wife, Martha, did, he waited for her outside the sanctuary… Even on his deathbed, Washington asked for no ritual, uttered no prayer to Christ, and expressed no wish to be attended by His representative.”
“Gouverneur Morris had often told me that General Washington believed no more of that system (Christianity) than did he himself.” – Thomas Jefferson, in his private journal, Feb. 1800.
Abraham Lincoln was not a “Founder”, but he did say:
“The Bible is not my Book and Christianity is not my religion. I could never give assent to the long complicated statements of Christian dogma.”
And perhaps most pointedly, we have this:
“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.” – Thomas Paine
But these men, for the most part, were not atheists. Actually, America’s Founders were mostly Deists: a spiritual philosophy which holds that Reason, and observation of the Natural World, without any need for organized religion, shows us that the universe is the product of a divine Creator (who rarely, if ever, intervenes in earthly affairs).
This is why Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence never mentions Jesus Christ or Christianity, but does attribute humanity’s self-evident Freedom and Equality to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”
“. . . Some books against Deism fell into my hands. . . It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.” – Benjamin Franklin
In Washington and Religion, Paul F. Boller, Jr., writes: “Washington was no infidel, if by infidel is meant unbeliever. Washington had an unquestioning faith in Providence and, as we have seen, he voiced this faith publicly on numerous occasions. That this was no mere rhetorical flourish on his part, designed for public consumption, is apparent from his constant allusions to Providence in his personal letters. There is every reason to believe, from a careful analysis of religious references in his private correspondence, that Washington’s reliance upon a Grand Designer along Deist lines was deep-seated and meaningful for his life.”
Boller includes a quote from a Presbyterian minister, Arthur B. Bradford, an associate of Ashbel Green (another Presbyterian minister who had known Washington personally). “[Green] often said in my hearing, though very sorrowfully of course, that while Washington was very deferential to religion and its ceremonies, like nearly all the founders of the Republic, he was not a Christian, but a Deist.”
Some were less sure:
“I have generally been denominated a Deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious I am no Christian, except mere infant baptism makes me one; and as to being a Deist, I know not strictly speaking, whether I am one or not.” – Ethan Allen
Perhaps the most important evidence that America is not a “Christian Nation” comes from our legal documentation.
If the U.S. was founded on the Christian religion, the Constitution could clearly have said so. It doesn’t. The silence is deafening. Nowhere in the document is there any mention of God, Jesus Christ, or Christianity. The only time the word ‘Religion’ shows up is when the Founders are limiting it: Article VI says “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” and the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
As we have seen, the Declaration of Independence does mention God. But the Declaration, though virtually sacred to our national history, was written before the Constitution and thus carries no legal authority. Even more importantly, the mention of God in Jefferson’s document is clearly Deist, not Christian.
Even so, it would certainly be useful to have a clear, straightforward statement, somewhere in our national documentation, that testifies one way or another to whether the founders of this nation believed they were forming a “Christian Nation” or not.
We do have such a document.
In the final days of Washington’s second term, his administration was negotiating a treaty with the Muslim nation of Tripoli. This was a common type of treaty that had to do with shipping rights and protecting free trade from piracy and other obstacles. The treaty was completed when John Adams’ presidency had begun, and Adams signed it and sent it to the Senate for ratification.
Article XI of the treaty makes this simple, blunt, unequivocal statement:
“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 law, religion or tranquility of Muslims; and as the states never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mohometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinion shall ever produce an interruption of harmony existing between the two countries.”
The entire treaty, including Article XI, was read out loud to the assembled Senate: there can be no assumption that they did not know what the document contained. They ratified the document unanimously. Up to this time, 1797, there had already been nearly 400 votes in the United States Senate. This was only the third time that a motion was passed unanimously with no objections from anyone.
The treaty was then published in full in newspapers throughout the thirteen states, and there is no record of any complaints, disagreement, or outrage, from this first generation of proud, and informed, Americans.
The “wall of separation” that America’s Founders constructed between the government and all religions, has not put a damper on Christianity or any other faith. It actually protects and encourages religion. It is precisely because our secular government allows the free expression of religious and non-religious ideas, with no preferences and no interference, that religion flourishes in America.
You may enjoy my book:
THE AMERICAN PSYCHE IN SEARCH OF ITS SOUL:
Freedom, Equality, and the Restoration of Meaning