Christianity in America – Myth vs History

Were the Founding Fathers Christians?  

The myth that the US was founded by Christians on Christian principles is a belief held by a great many Americans.  But our history simply doesn’t support any such assertion.  The 18th century was called The Age of Enlightenment and was marked by a movement toward rationalism and enlightened philosophies about new social and political structures. At the vanguard of this movement were such notable philosophers as John Locke, Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau.

The Age of Enlightenment was also defined, in part, by the rise of Deism and Unitarianism and many of the founding fathers were themselves either Deists or Unitarians.  For example, James Madison, whose ideas on government and civil liberties were the foundational framework of our present Constitution, was a Deist as were Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and many others.  George Washington was Unitarian.  Deists and Unitarians believe in the same God as the Christians but they do not have faith in the Biblical prophecies that define the essential character of revealed religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Religion vs the US Constitution

One of the important challenges facing the founding fathers was how to create a new system of government that would forever protect its citizens from religious persecution and suffering like that experienced throughout Europe as a consequence of theocratic religious intolerance. In their wisdom, they knew that is was not reasonable to trust that a government, based upon the principles of one particular religious belief, could fairly govern a nation composed of people with many differing faiths. The only feasible solution was to separate religion and government into two independent camps by mandating the creation of a secular government that did not and could not endorse one religious doctrine about God over any other. In doing so, they elected to craft a constitution based upon the principles of a “secular democracy” in lieu of creating a “theocracy.”

This is not an act of expelling God from government as some Christians seem to believe.  Quite the contrary, it is instead the very insurance that gives every American the security to worship his God in the manner of his choosing without fear of intervention, prohibition or persecution by the government.  Moreover, this Constitutional umbrella extends to protect every citizen against civil rights violations that could and do arise from inter-faith intolerance.

What About Exceptions?

The motto “In God We Trust” that appears on US currency is cited, by some Christians,  as evidence of our founding fathers’ belief that non-denominational references to God are legitimate exceptions to the wall between church and state. But, according to the Treasury Department, this motto was placed on United States coins during the Civil War and only because of a rising religious sentiment growing out of the pain and suffering that the war had brought upon the nation. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received many appeals from devout persons throughout the country and the first such appeals came in a letter dated November 13, 1861 from Rev. M. R. Watkinson, Minister of the Gospel from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania .

Likewise, the Pledge of Allegiance, written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy a Baptist minister and Christian socialist, did not include any reference to God.  In its original version it read, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  By an act of Congress in 1954, the words “under God” were added after the word “nation.”

And finally, the offering of a prayer before the opening of each new session of Congress actually began as a tradition well before the drafting and ratification of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.  It has continued as a tradition to this day but without the force of any legal precedent.

What we can say about these exceptions is that they were either too recent, as in the case of the currency inscription and the Pledge of Allegiance, to claim that they express views of the founding fathers or that they reflect a respect for tradition without the precedent of law, as in the case of the Congressional prayer.  And while they are, in the strictest of terms, a breach of the wall between church and state, they all have, with the passage of time, become traditions that pose little to no threat of undermining the separate church – state principles established by the founding fathers.  On the other hand it would be wrong to view our tolerance of these traditions as being a precedent for the authority to introduce religious prayer or religious beliefs into other affairs of government or in public places.

Is America Founded on the Christian Religion?

That the constitutional government of this country was not founded upon Christian principals is brought into sharp focus by the Treaty of Tripoli drafted by the Washington administration and ratified by the Senate in 1779 under the Adams Administration.  Article 11 of this treaty states,

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, as it has in itself no character on enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

What could be more convincing than to know that our founding fathers themselves asserted the following disclaimer, “….the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion……”

A Final Thought

“First, Western civilization is a synthesis of at least three traditions – Christianity, Classical Civilization, and the cultures of Celtic and Teutonic barbarians – and as such is a new entity, that was also shaped by geography and circumstance.  Second, if these characteristics were Christian as opposed to having their origin in a synthesis, we would expect them to appear in all societies of which Christianity is the dominant religion.  Thus the premise that their appearance in Western culture is attributable to Christianity, as opposed to being attributable to a synthesis is testable.  There is at lease one Christian society, besides Western Christendom, dating from late Roman and medieval times: Eastern Orthodox Christianity, centered first in the Byzantine Empire, then in Czarist Russia..  Neither the Byzantine Empire nor Czarist Russia developed separation of church and state, capitalism or any democratic institutions.” Is Ours a Christian Civilization,  Skeptic Magazine, Vol 17, Number 3, 2012. Tim Calahan,  Religious Editor Skeptic Magazine

Bill Benson

03/28/04