America’s Founders insisted that no religion in America was to be privileged, and none was to be demeaned.
Of course, people often assume that when they said things like this, they were really only talking about freedom of religion for various Christian denominations. After all, they knew little or nothing about other religions.
But actually, this assumption is false.
Thomas Jefferson once wrote about an early bill: “[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.” [italics mine]
James Madison, the main author of the Constitution and the First Amendment, once asked: “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?” [italics mine]
Even so, another assumption insists that the Founders were believing, Church-going Christians, just like many of today’s American Christians.
This assumption is also false.
“I have found Christian dogma unintelligible,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. “Early in life I absented myself from Christian assemblies.”
According to one of Franklin’s close friends, Rev. 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,” according to John Adams, “is made a convenient cover for absurdity.”
“I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world,” wrote Jefferson in a letter, “and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology.”
There is no mention anywhere of Jesus Christ in the extensive correspondence of George Washington. Historian Barry Schwartz says: “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.”
And perhaps most pointedly, we have this statement from another of our nation’s Founders, Thomas Paine: “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.”
But these men 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 the Declaration of Independence never mentions Jesus Christ or Christianity, but instead attributes our self-evident Rights and Equality to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”
Franklin tells us that as a youth some anti-Deist books were given to him, but he found that “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.”
In his book, Washington and Religion, Paul F. Boller, Jr., notes: “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…. 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 also includes this quote from Arthur B. Bradford, an associate of Ashbel Green (a minister who knew 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.” [italics mine]
Of course, the best evidence that America is not a “Christian Nation” would have to come from official documentation. Is there any?
If the U.S. was founded on the Christian religion, the Constitution could easily have said so. The silence is deafening. Nowhere is there any mention of God, Jesus, or Christianity.
But even so, what would really be useful would be a clear, straightforward statement that testifies one way or another as to whether the Founders of this nation were forming a “Christian Nation” or not.
We have such a document.
In the final days of Washington’s second term, his administration was negotiating a treaty with the nation of Tripoli. It was a routine treaty about shipping rights and protecting free trade. The agreement was completed when John Adams’ presidency had begun, and he signed it and sent it to the Senate for ratification.
Article XI of the Treaty of Tripoli begins with this 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,” etc., etc.
The complete treaty was read out loud to the Senate: they knew exactly what the document said. They ratified it unanimously.
The treaty was then published in full in newspapers throughout the thirteen states. There is no record of any complaint, disagreement, or outrage, from anyone in that first generation of proud, and informed, Americans.
I would hasten to add that the “Wall of Separation” which America’s Founders wisely built between the government and all religions, does not put a damper on Christianity or any other faith. On the contrary, it protects and encourages religion. Precisely because our secular government allows the free expression of religious and non-religious ideas, with no preferences and no interference, religion flourishes in America.
Andrew Cort, JD, DC, is an attorney, author, teacher, and Doctor of Chiropractic. He has written several books on religion, spirituality, interfaith cooperation, and the place of faith in contemporary society. His most recent book, Symbols, Meaning, and the Sacred Quest: Spiritual Awakening in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Stories, celebrates the underlying decency and spiritual unity of our western traditions. Find out more about Dr. Cort, his books, videos, speaking engagements and other events, at his blog, Spirituality and Religion, which honors the magnificent diversity and common spirit of all our traditions. He is also the host of Spirit of the Berkshires on CTSB-TV and available on his website. (If you are in the western Massachusetts region, please come on May 16 to Dr. Cort’s lecture, “Beyond Religious Tolerance: from Tolerance, to Respect, to Friendship.” For details, contact [email protected]). Follow Dr. Cort on Twitter and Facebook.
Prepared by Valerie Carruthers.