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America's Great Secular Experiment
There are many believers in the United States who insist that America is a "Christian nation." Usually, this is coupled with the assertion that the country was founded upon the principles of Christianity or, at the very least, on "Judeo-Christian values." Given that most of the United States' current inhabitants consider themselves Christian, a reasonable argument could at least be made on behalf of the first proposition. However, when it comes to the notion of Christian origins, a thorough examination of the facts suggests very different beginnings. Neither the "founding fathers" nor the American public of the time appear to have been particularly committed to the notion of a nation founded on Christianity.
Our Godless Constitution
We should begin by first considering the foundational document of the nation, the Constitution in 1787. The men who created this manuscript surely understood the significance of their endeavor to the future of the nation, probably the most portentous undertaking of their lives. Having the opportunity to weave God and religion into the tapestry of the very legal foundation of the country, they declined to do so. Certainly this was no accident or oversight.
In fact, the only references to religion in our current Constitution are restrictions on what the state can do with regard to it. For instance, Article VI declares that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust." When the Constitution was amended to provide specific guarantees of individual rights and protections, it's notable that the very first among them was the proscription that Congress "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" (now widely known as the "establishment clause"). Strict "Constitutionalists" take note: There is nothing in the Constitution linking the United States to Judaism, Christianity or any other religion, in origin or in character. Not one word.
Our Deist Founding Fathers
Next, we should consider the founding fathers themselves. Many of them were Deists (not Christians), including Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison and many others. Though believing in God, they were either suspicious of, or downright hostile to, organized religion. In every manner that can be ascertained -- from their public and private correspondence, from their arguments, from their policies, and from the very instruments of government they created -- the founders of the United States were clearly committed to a secular nation.
George Washington was rightfully proud of the Constitution's secular nature, proclaiming in a private letter that "In this Land of equal Liberty it is our boast, that a man's religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States." It was Washington's adminstration that negotiated and concluded the Treaty of Tripoli, which declared that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." The Senate vote to ratify the treaty was unanimous, and John Adams signed it in 1797. Incidentally, if not for a New York state law requiring all official oaths to be taken on a Bible, Washington may have never set that particular ceremonial precedent for the nation's highest office, as no such accomodations had been made.
With regard to the formation of the American governments, John Adams once observed (with an unfortunate lack of clairvoyance) that "It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven...it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses." In an 1812 letter to Benjamin Rush, Adams commented that "Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion."
Thomas Jefferson actually coined the phrase "wall of separation between church and state" in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, referring specifically to the establishment clause of the First Amendment. In a subsequent letter to the Virginia Baptists he once again used the phrase, re-emphasizing its importance: "Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society."
James Madison is widely referred to as the "father of the Constitution," having authored much of it, including the Bill of Rights. In personal correspondence, he referred to a "line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority," stating that the best way to guard against a "corrupting coalition or alliance between them" is to maintain an "entire abstinence of the Gov't from interfence." In an essay regarding monopolies, he warned that "Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history."
No Appeals To God
But what of the consensus of the American public at the time of the founding of the nation? It's difficult to know the public sentiment regarding a secular government. Still, an examination of the Federalist Papers, which one historian called "an incomparable exposition of the Constitution," can be revealing. The purpose of these essays, written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, was to convince the citizens of the individual states to ratify the national Constitution.
These three men were brilliant politicians, skilled in the art of persuasion. If Christianity were such an essential aspect of the American popular political culture of the moment, it goes without saying that they would have made numerous appeals to God, faith and creation in pressing their argument. Yet, in all their 88 essays, the authors make only one oblique reference to "nature's God." I'd wager they had a better sense of the contemporary public mindset than today's Christian revisionists.
America at the time of the founding of the country was a veritable free market of religion, from Puritans to Catholics, Quakers, Anglicans, Unitarians, Menonites, Baptists, Methodists and many smaller sects. Many had known the grief of persecution for their religious beliefs, here in the colonies, as their ancestors had known it in Europe. They were clearly ready for something new, for what John Adams referred to as "the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature." They were, it seems, "sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition" to participate in America's great secular experiment.