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Alert: Americans who honor the U.S. Constitution’s strict separation of church and state are now genuinely alarmed. Agnostics and atheists, as well as observant people of every faith, fear — sensibly — that the religious right is gaining historic political power, via an ultraconservative movement with highly placed friends.
But many of us feel helpless. We haven’t read the Founding Documents since school (if then). We lack arguing tools, “verbal karate” evidence we can cite in defending a secular United States.
For instance, such extremists claim — and, too often, we ourselves assume — that U.S. law has religious roots. Yet the Constitution contains no reference to a deity.
The Declaration of Independence contains not one word on religion, basing its authority on the shocking idea that power is derived from ordinary people, which challenged European traditions of rule by divine right and/or heavenly authority. (Remember, George III was king of England and anointed head of its church.)
The words “Nature’s God,” the “Creator” and “divine Providence ” do appear in the Declaration. But in its context — an era, and author, Thomas Jefferson, that celebrated science and the Enlightenment — these words are analogous to our contemporary phrase “life force.”
Jerry Falwell notoriously blamed 9/11 on “pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians … [and other groups] who have tried to secularize America.” He’s a bit late: In 1798, Alexander Hamilton accused Jefferson of a “conspiracy to establish atheism on the ruins of Christianity” in the new republic. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence William Boykin thunders, “We’re a Christian nation.”
But the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli — initiated by George Washington and signed into law by John Adams — proclaims: “The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion.”
Offices for “Faith-Based Initiatives” with nearly $20 billion in grants have been established (by executive order, circumventing Congress) in 10 federal agencies, as well as inside the White House. This fails “the Lemon Test,” violating a 1971 Supreme Court decision (Lemon v. Kurtzman): “first, a statute [or public policy] must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute [or policy] must not foster ‘excessive government entanglement with religion.’”
When Attorney General John Ashcroft repeatedly invokes religion, the Founders must be picketing in their graves. They were a mix of freethinkers, atheists, Christians, agnostics, Freemasons and Deists (professing belief in powers scientifically evinced in the natural universe). They surely were imperfect. Some were slaveholders.
Female citizens were invisible to them — though Abigail Adams warned her husband John, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
But the Founders were, after all, revolutionaries. Their passion — especially regarding secularism — glows in the documents they forged and in their personal words.
THOMAS PAINE Paine’s writings heavily influenced the other Founders. A freethinker who opposed all organized religion, he reserved particular vituperation for Christianity. “My country is the world and my religion is to do good” (The Rights of Man, 1791).
“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” (The Age of Reason, 1794).
“Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is no more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself than this thing called Christianity” (Ibid.).
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN Raised a Calvinist, Franklin rebelled — and spread that rebellion, affecting Adams and Jefferson. His friend, Dr. Priestley, wrote in his own Autobiography: “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.”
A scientist, Franklin rejected churches, rituals, and all “supernatural superstitions.”
“Scarcely was I arrived at fifteen years of age, when, after having doubted in turn of different tenets, according as I found them combated in the different books that I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself ” (Franklin’s Autobiography, 1817–18).
“Some volumes against Deism fell into my hands … they produced an effect precisely the reverse to what was intended by the writers; for the arguments of the Deists, which were cited in order to be refuted, appeared to me much more forcibly than the refutation itself; in a word, I soon became a thorough Deist” (Ibid.).
GEORGE WASHINGTON The false image of Washington as a devout Christian was fabricated by Mason Locke Weems, a clergyman who also invented the cherry-tree fable and in 1800 published his Life of George Washington. Washington, a Deist and a Freemason, never once mentioned the name of Jesus Christ in any of his thousands of letters, and pointedly referred to divinity as “It.”
Whenever he (rarely) attended church, Washington always deliberately left before communion, demonstrating disbelief in Christianity’s central ceremony.
JOHN ADAMS Adams, a Unitarian inspired by the Enlightenment, fiercely opposed doctrines of supernaturalism or damnation, writing to Jefferson: “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. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”
Adams realized how politically crucial — and imperiled — a secular state would be: “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. … It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service [forming the U.S. government] 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. …Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery… 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, 1787–88).
THOMAS JEFFERSON It’s a commonly stated error that U.S. law, based on English common law, is thus grounded in Judeo-Christian tradition.
Yet Jefferson (writing to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814 ) noted that common law “is that system of law which was introduced by the Saxons on their settlement in England …about the middle of the fifth century. But Christianity was not introduced till the seventh century. …We may safely affirm (though contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.”
Jefferson professed disbelief in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ, while respecting moral teachings by whomever might have been a historical Jesus. He cut up a Bible, assembling his own version: “The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful,” he wrote Adams (January 24, 1814), “evidence that parts have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds.”
Scorning miracles, saints, salvation, damnation, and angelic presences, Jefferson embraced reason, materialism, and science. He challenged Patrick Henry, who wanted a Christian theocracy: “[A]n amendment was proposed by inserting ‘Jesus Christ,’ so that [the preamble] should read ‘A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion’; the insertion was rejected by a 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 Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination” (from Jefferson’s Autobiography, referring to the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom).
The theme is consistent throughout Jefferson ’s prolific correspondence: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God” (letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787).
“[The clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” (letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800).
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which…thus[built] a wall of separation between church and state” (letter to the Danbury [ Connecticut ] Baptist Association, January 1, 1802).
“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government” (letter to Alexander von Humboldt, December 6, 1813).
“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).
“[W]hence arises the morality of the Atheist? …Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God” (letter to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814).
“I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know” (letter to Ezra Stiles, June 25, 1819).
“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus… will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter” (letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823).
JAMES MADISON Although prayer groups proliferate in today’s Congress, James Madison, “father of the Constitution,” denounced even the presence of chaplains in Congress — and in the armed forces — as unconstitutional. He opposed all use of “religion as an engine of civil policy,” and accurately prophesied the threat of “ecclesiastical corporations.”
“Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise” (letter to William Bradford, April 1, 1774).
“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, Section 7, 1785).
“What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen as the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries” (Ibid., Section 8).
“Besides the danger of a direct mixture of Religion & civil Government, there is an evil which ought to be guarded agst. in the indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in perpetuity by ecclesiastical corporations. The power of all corporations ought to be limited in this respect. …The establishment of the chaplainship to Congs. is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles. … Better also to disarm in the same way, the precedent of Chaplainships for the army and navy. … Religious proclamations by the Executive [branch] recommending thanksgivings & fasts are shoots from the same root. … Altho’ recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers” (Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, Ecclesiastical Endowments, circa 1819).
That’s only a sampling, quotes that blast cobwebs off the tamed images we have of the Founders. Their own statements — not dead rhetoric but alive with ringing, still radical, ideas — can reconnect us to our proud, secular roots, and should inspire us to honor and defend them.
The Founders minced no words — and they acted on them. Dare we do less?