Not a Christian Nation: How the Founders and Their Constitution Enraged the Religious
Many on the religious right insist that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, meaning the federal government and Constitution were intentionally founded on Christian principles by Christian men, who intended the faith to take a central role in governance and law.
The Constitution (and its Bill of Rights) was an important document in world history because it greatly expanded personal freedoms and slightly widened democracy (it kept political power in the hands of the aristocracy). However, and even more radically, the Constitution made no mention of God or Jesus Christ. This was a departure from the Declaration of Independence, the 1776 Articles of Confederation, and many state constitutions, which mentioned God, his glory, and the rights he gave man. It was very unlike most European states.
This caused much controversy. (Sources available in The Godless Constitution, by Kramnick and Moore.)
The Constitution enraged many Christians
The U.S. Constitution was signed in September 1787, to a mixed response.
One writer in November 1787 condemned the framers’ “silence” and “indifference about religion.” A Virginia newspaper warned of “pernicious effects” of the Constitution’s “cold indifference toward religion.” Thomas Wilson of Virginia called the document “deistical,” and lamented that the framers didn’t think of God during their work. A 1787 Philadelphia pamphlet declared “there was never a nation in the world whose government was not circumscribed by religion” and that “the new Constitution, disdains…belief of a deity, the immortality of the soul, or the resurrection of the body, a day of judgments, or a future state of rewards and punishments.”
A delegate at the New Hampshire ratification warned that if the Constitution passed, “Congress might deprive the people of the use of the holy scriptures.” A writer in a Boston newspaper warned in January 1788 that God would turn his back on America, like he did with Saul in the Old Testament. Charles Turner of Massachusetts warned it would lead to “ruin.” Later, Timothy Dwight declared at Yale College that the War of 1812 would be lost because we “offended Providence. We formed our Constitution without any acknowledgement of God.” Minister Horace Bushnell even blamed the Civil War on our “infidel” government!
When the Constitution and Bill of Rights did mention religion, it angered Christians further. The First Amendment said the government would not support one particular religion, nor prevent people from following any particular religion. Article 6 of the Constitution declared there would be no religious tests for political office. Amazingly, this law, according to Maryland delegate Luther Martin, was “adopted by a very great majority…and without much debate” at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, despite the fact that 11 of the 13 states had religious qualifications for being a politician. If you were not Protestant, you could not govern. And in Rhode Island, only Protestants could vote! One of the two states that banned religious tests, Virginia, did so because of earlier efforts by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. This led to some hysteria.
Protestant Christians were terrified that no religious qualification meant we’d see “a papist [Catholic], a Mohomatan [Muslim], a deist, yea an atheist at the helm of government.” Minister David Caldwell, a delegate at the North Carolina ratification, warned we’d have “Jews and pagans of every kind” in office. Thomas Lusk of Massachusetts, not seeing the irony, predicted “Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.” A pamphlet in North Carolina cautioned that the Pope in Rome might be elected president! Many Christians feared the anti-slavery and anti-war Quakers would be elected. A New York newspaper denounced the idea of politicians who were Quakers (“who will make the blacks saucy”), Muslims (“who ridicule the doctrine of the Trinity”), deists (“abominable wretches”), Negroes (“the seed of Cain”), beggars (“who…ride with the Devil”), and Jews (who might “rebuild Jerusalem”).
Fortunately, cooler, more tolerant, and less religious heads prevailed.
Proposals and petitions to have religious tests for federal office were struck down by the Constitutional Convention. So were ideas to add religious language to the document, like delegate William Williams’ suggestion the preamble be changed to: “We the people of the United States in a firm belief of the being and perfection of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governor of the World, in His universal providence and the authority of His laws…”
Some people pointed out that men of all faiths or no faith fought in the Revolutionary army. Jews and other groups protested for equal rights. Tenche Coxe of Philadelphia, former member of the Continental Congress, declared, “Ecclesiastical tyranny, that long standing and still remaining curse of the people, can be feared by no man in the United States,” and that we would become an “asylum of religious liberty.” James Iredell, future associate justice of the Supreme Court, called religious tests “discrimination.” Reverend Daniel Shute said they came from “bigotry.” Reverend Isaac Backus called them “the greatest engine of tyranny in the world.” Reverend Samuel Langdon called the lack of religious tests a “great ornament of the Constitution.”
The fact that the Constitution was secular, despite much precedent for religion in government, is overall a testament to the influence and power of non-Christians like Madison and Jefferson at the Constitutional Convention. Most of the famous founding fathers opposed religion in government, and some had some very nasty words for Christianity indeed.
The Founders’ Heresy Enraged Many Christians
In 1831, New York minister Bird Wilson lamented, “The founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels.”
Not what one usually hears from the religious right today.
The Founding Fathers, sons of the Enlightenment and followers of the more secular John Locke, were greatly influenced by deism. Some did not believe in the Judeo-Christian God. Deism is the belief that a higher power exists and created the universe, but does not intervene in the material world any longer. Nature is the only way to “see” God. Thus, miracles were impossible, prayer irrelevant, the Bible mythological. In this view, Jesus Christ was a fraud.
John Adams was a Christian, but condemned religious violence and religious dogma. George Washington, while writing little on faith matters, regularly made mention of God, and encouraged his men “to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier.” But there is some controversy over how seriously Washington took Christianity (many quotes attributed to him, such as “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible” and “What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ” are total fabrications). It is highly possible Washington was a deist. Jefferson wrote of Washington (Anas, February 1, 1800):
When the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However [Dr. Rush] observed the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory letter to the Governors of the states when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion. I know that Gouvemeur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.
James Madison and Ben Franklin were known to be deists, as were Jefferson and Thomas Paine, though these two flirted dangerously with atheism. Jefferson even rewrote the New Testament, cutting out all supernatural events, including the Resurrection (look up The Jefferson Bible).
Regardless of their differing views, the most famous Founding Fathers disliked the Church in some way. They generally believed in a secular government, well-documented in many places, from national treaties to personal letters. Not all of these men signed the Constitution, but those that did helped make it godless.
George Washington: Protect religion from tyranny, but beware its dangers
“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 Churches in Virginia, May 10, 1789
“Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.”
Letter to Edward Newenham, June 22, 1792
“Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by the difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be depreciated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society.”
Letter to Edward Newenham, Oct. 20, 1792
John Adams: Be a Christian, but you’re not in a Christian nation
“Conclude not from this that I have renounced the Christian religion…. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion.”
Letter to Jefferson, Nov. 4, 1816
“As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?”
Letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, Dec. 27, 1816
“The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Treaty of Tripoli, approved by the Senate and signed by Adams, 1797
“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 æra in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had any interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven, any more than those at work upon ships or houses, or labouring in merchandize or agriculture: it will for ever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses…”
“Thirteen governments thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favour of the rights of mankind.”
Defence of the Constitutions, 1786
“Let the human mind loose. It must be loose. It will be loose. Superstition and dogmatism cannot confine it.”
Letter to his son John Quincy Adams, Nov. 13, 1816
“A general Suspicion prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment as a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The Secret Whisper ran through them all the Sects “Let Us have Jefferson Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deist or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President. This Principle is at the Bottom of the Unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings, Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion.”
Letter to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812
Benjamin Franklin: No need to worship, and don’t let the church use the state
“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
“The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”
Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1759
“When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig’d to call for the help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
Letter to Richard Price, October 9, 1780
Thomas Jefferson: Jesus was a fairytale, and separate church and state
“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823
“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”
Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787
“We find in the [gospels]…a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications.”
Letter to William Short, August 4, 1820
“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 breaks my leg, nor picks my pocket.”
“Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned… What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.”
Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785
“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 religious, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Letter to Danbury Baptist Association, January 1, 1802
“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the Despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
Letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814
James Madison: No official religion, period
“What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments 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. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not.”
A Memorial and Remonstrance, 1785
“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning Government and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have in turn divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to cooperate for their common good.”
Federalist No. 10, 1787
“The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”
Detached Memoranda, c. 1817
“Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize.”
Letter to William Bradford, April 1, 1774
“Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”
Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822
“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, June 20, 1785
Thomas Paine: A demon probably wrote the bible
“Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.”
“The study of theology, as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion.”
“The story of Jesus Christ appearing after he was dead is the story of an apparition, such as timid imaginations can always create in vision, and credulity believe. Stories of this kind had been told of the assassination of Julius Caesar, not many years before; and they generally have their origin in violent deaths, or in the execution of innocent persons.”
“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.”
The Age of Reason, 1794
Garrett S. Griffin is a political writer for Weekend Collective and the author of Racism in Kansas City: A Short History. A former religious conservative, he is now an atheist and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Follow him @garrettsgriffin.