The role of religion is a major flashpoint in the ongoing culture wars. Did the Founding Fathers see the U.S. as a Christian nation?
How religious were the Founders?
Most of them were men of sincere Protestant conviction. Their individual piety and practices, however, varied widely. George Washington, for example, was an Episcopalian who attended services regularly. But he didn’t take communion or kneel when he prayed. Thomas Jefferson, while considering himself a Christian, disagreed with much of the Bible and rejected the divinity of Jesus. So he created his own version of the New Testament, cutting out all references to miracles—even Jesus’ resurrection. Although Benjamin Franklin supported the Presbyterian church all his life, he rarely went to services because he found them dull.
Did they think God had blessed America?
Indeed they did. Their writings are filled with the fervent belief that the Colonies’ very existence proved that a divine will was at work. As early as 1765, John Adams wrote that he considered America to be “the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.” Nearly 50 years later, in 1813, he wrote that the “general principles on which the Fathers achieved independence were…the general principles of Christianity.” However, when Adams and his compatriots spoke of Christianity, it wasn’t quite the kind practiced by evangelicals today.
So what was it?
The faith that many of the Founders embraced was deism. Less a religion than a way of perceiving divinity in the world, deism is rooted in the 17th- and 18th-century scientific and philosophical revolutions of the Enlightenment. For deists, God is not a father figure who dwells in heaven and performs miracles. Rather, he is an undefined and unknowable “prime mover” who reveals himself in immutable laws that can rationally explain both cosmic and human affairs. Everything from the physical forces that govern the universe to the essential freedom of man, deists believe, are outward signs of God’s presence among us. In keeping with their deist beliefs, the Founders often refrained from calling the source of their inspiration “God.” He—or, rather, it—was “Divine Providence” and “The Universal Sovereign,” among other euphemisms.
But did the Founders oppose religion?
Quite the contrary. They considered it essential to the health of the republic. Religion, they felt, endowed people with such values as self-reliance, sacrifice, and compassion that were necessary for good citizenship. It also counteracted the destructive tendencies of democracy and capitalism alike. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” said George Washington in his farewell address in 1796, “religion and morality are indispensable supports.” James Madison felt similarly. “Before any man can be considered a member of Civil Society,” he wrote, “he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.” Still, the Founders declined to give religion the official endorsement of their new government.
What were they afraid of?
The same intolerance and bigotry that drove many of the original settlers to the New World. The monarchs of the Old World, they knew, had often invoked God as an excuse to make war. Not only had Europe’s kings and princes waged the Crusades in the name of Christianity, they had fought bloody battles of succession and conquest among themselves, with Protestants and Catholics slaughtering one another for political power. “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross,” wrote John Adams. “Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!” When the Founders gathered to write the Constitution in 1787, they were determined to set a different course, so as not to repeat the mistakes of history.
How did they achieve this?
By largely excluding God and religion from our national blueprint. The only reference to religion in the original Constitution is in Article VI, Section 3: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” When it came time to add the Bill of Rights, the Framers felt that a firmer statement was needed. As their model, they took Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom. Written by Thomas Jefferson, and passed by the Virginia Legislature in 1786, it declared that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.” For the Constitution, James Madison expanded this into, “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or any pretense, infringed.” With some trimming, Madison’s resolution became part of the First Amendment we know today.
What was the result?
For all practical purposes, it put the U.S. on the road to secularism. The earliest official expression of this sentiment probably came on June 7, 1797, when the Senate ratified the Treaty of Tripoli, which made peace with the Barbary pirates of North Africa. In declaring that we had no quarrel with the faith of any “Mehomitan” (Muslim) nation, the treaty—ratified unanimously—stipulated that “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” Evangelicals of the time were outraged, but the nation’s course was set. In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson gave the secularists a phrase they would repeat in every subsequent argument on the topic. Baptist ministers from Connecticut had written him, complaining of persecution by the state’s Congregationalist establishment, and seeking his views on religion and the Constitution. “Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God,” Jefferson assured them, declaring that the First Amendment had “erected a wall of separation between Church and State.”
A call for prayer
The first weeks of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were so fraught with difficulty that Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the least religious delegate, proposed that “henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business.” He even requested that a clergyman be appointed to officiate. But Alexander Hamilton and several other delegates feared that the resolution, by being introduced at this late date, might lead the public to think that the convention was getting desperate. In any event, Hugh Williamson of North Carolina pointed out, no funds were available to pay for a chaplain. Franklin’s resolution promptly died. He later noted, “The convention, except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”