- Religion and Philosophy
America's "Christian" Founding Fathers
For reasons I cannot even begin to guess at, I often find myself tuning into Conservative talk radio in the mornings. And one of the quotes I hear repeated most often is this notion that, as a nation, we "must return to the Christian roots of our Christian Founders." Growing up in a Conservative Christian home, this was certainly a concept I'd had instilled in me from Day 1, but I finally decided to dig around a bit for myself in order to more precisely ascertain the core belief of America's Founders.
I guess the most obvious thing to do is simply list who our Founding Fathers were, and then use selectively chosen quotes and anecdotes to demonstrate just how much these powdered wig-wearing MF’s dug Jesus. The 10 men generally credited with the title of “Founding Father” are: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Walt Disney, and Elvis. Okay, I’m kidding about two of them. Madison and Franklin had nothing to do with it. (We’ll also take a look at another man who is not regarded as a Founding Fathers, per se, but was no less influential in shaping America’s ideals: Abraham Lincoln.) Now, instead of us telling them what they thought about God and Christianity, let’s do it the other way around, you know, like non-retarded people. First up: John Adams. (we’ll go in alphabetical order so no one’s feelings get hurt)
John Adams was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, the first Vice President of the United States, and the second President of our Country. He helped Thomas Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence. He was one of the chief voices urging for revolt against England, so we know that his political views were somewhat (okay, drastically) left of Biblical. So what were his religious views?
Adams was a devout Unitarian (which in Evangelical Christian circles is about on par with Scientology), who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. Here are some of his personal thoughts on religion in general and Christianity in particular:
"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
- letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, Dec. 27, 1816
"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!" - letter to Thomas Jefferson
". . . Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind."
"The priesthood have, in all ancient nations, nearly monopolized learning. And ever since the Reformation, when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate A FREE INQUIRY? The blackest billingsgate, the most ungentlemanly insolence, the most yahooish brutality, is patiently endured, countenanced, propagated, and applauded. But touch a solemn truth in collision with a dogma of a sect, though capable of the clearest proof, and you will find you have disturbed a nest, and the hornets will swarm about your eyes and hand, and fly into your face and eyes." - letter to John Taylor
"The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find a precept for Creeds, Confessions, Oaths, Doctrines, and whole cartloads of other foolish trumpery that we find in Christianity."
"The question before the human race is, whether the God of Nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles?"
"God is an essence that we know nothing of. Until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there will never be any liberal science in the world."
"Have you considered that system of holy lies and pious frauds that has raged and triumphed for 1,500 years?"
"This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it."
Hmmm. Okay, so Adams wasn’t the best example of just how Christian America’s foundation was. Perhaps ol’ Mr. Electricity himself can – pardon the pun – shed some light on this issue. What say you, B-Frank? And please, be frank.
Benjamin Franklin was one of the most accomplished scientists of his time. Aside from giving us the lightning rod and the Franklin stove (which I think was named after some guy named “Steve”), he also organized the first library in America and the U.S. Postal System. In Europe, Franklin was the most famous American of his time. It was he who persuaded the English to repeal the hated Stamp Act. It was also he who convinced the French to aid in the American Revolution. Franklin helped draft both the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution.
Benjamin Franklin was also a Deist. Deism came to prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Enlightenment, and holds that a Supreme Being or “Architect” created the world once upon a time, but does not intervene in human affairs, answer prayers, or manifest any type of supernatural acts or revelations. Deism acknowledges reason and direct observation as the supreme authority in our world.
On Christianity and religion, Franklin had this to say:
". . . Some books against Deism fell into my hands. . . It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist."
"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
"I wish it (Christianity) were
more productive of good works ... I mean real good works ... not holy-day
keeping, sermon-hearing ... or making long prayers, filled with flatteries and
compliments despised by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the
- Works, Vol. VII, p. 75
"Lighthouses are more helpful than churches."
"The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason." - in Poor Richard's Almanac
"In the affairs of the world, men are saved, not by faith, but by the lack of it."
"When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."
Just in case you weren’t clear on that last one, Franklin thought it was a telling sign of a bad religion if it were forced to appeal to civil powers to reinforce its doctrines and beliefs. I guess all those Focus on the Family members are all good and pleased that he remains right dead. Finally, Dr. Priestley, an intimate friend of Franklin, wrote of him:
"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"
And that would bring Hamilton to the plate, with Jay waiting on deck.
Alexander Hamilton – who coined the oft quoted phrase “Those who stand for nothing will fall for anything” - was the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, economist, political philosopher, aide-de-camp to General George Washington during the American Revolutionary War, the financial expert of Washington's administration, a leader of nationalist forces calling for a new Constitution; was one of America's first Constitutional lawyers; and wrote most of the Federalist Papers, a primary source for Constitutional Interpretation. The Federalist Party formed to support his policies.
Hamilton wasn’t nearly as outspoken as the other Founding Fathers regarding religious matters. He appears to have had a conventionally religious youth, then either abandoned it – or became indifferent to it – from the ages of about 20 to 35. The following decade found him as somewhat of an opportunistic Christian, that is, he used religion for political ends. At the age of 44, Hamilton’s son Philip died, precipitating Hamilton’s return to a repentant, orthodox Christianity.
We know of a letter Hamilton wrote to John Laurens in Dec. 1779, discussing what he looked for in a wife. He said,
"As to religion, a moderate streak will satisfy me. She must believe in god and hate a saint."
Make of that remark what you will. The more overtly Christian statements we have from Hamilton are:
"For my own part, I sincerely esteem it a system which without the finger of God, never could have been suggested and agreed upon by such a diversity of interests." [1787 after the Constitutional Convention]
"I have carefully examined the evidences of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity I would unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man."
“I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am a sinner. I look to Him for mercy; pray for me.” [July 12, 1804 at his death]
So, it’s pretty safe to say that Hamilton was a Christian in the traditional sense, at least at the end. Though he used religiosity for political advancement, it’s not readily apparent that any uniquely “Christian” ideologies shaped his work or contributions to our nation, as they primarily dealt with finances. I’m quite sure there are some devout Christians on the board at Bank of America, but I think you’ll all agree with me that this does not a Christian bank make. Next.
John Jay was a politician, statesman, revolutionary, and diplomat. Leader of the Federalist party, Governor of New York, President of the Continental Congress, the first Chief Justice of the United States, co-author of the Federalist Papers, and ambassador to France and Spain, Jay helped fashion America’s foreign policy and secure favorable peace terms from the British (the Jay Treaty).
Religiously, Jay was Anglican (which became the Protestant Episcopal Church after the Revolution). He was a warden at New York’s Trinity Church, and once argued - unsuccessfully – for a prohibition against Catholics holding office (Because, you know, Catholics are Hindu, or something). Anyway, we do have plenty of quotes from Jay, and there is no denying that he was a man of faith and conviction:
"The Bible is the best of all books, for it is the word of God and teaches us the way to be happy in this world and in the next. Continue therefore to read it and to regulate your life by its precepts." – The Winning of Peace
"Only one adequate plan has ever appeared in the world, and that is the Christian dispensation." – The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay
"Unto Him who is the author and giver of all good, I render sincere and humble thanks for His manifold and unmerited blessings, and especially for our redemption and salvation by His beloved Son. ... Blessed be His holy name." – Last Will and Testament
So, yeah, Jay was pretty ardently Christian. If you couldn’t tell from his quotes, you could probably infer it from his arguing that certain kinds of Christians weren’t the “right kind” of Christians [to hold office], which is like Christianity’s official pastime, right after gossiping and being judgmental. That brings us to Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson was a horticulturist, political leader, architect, archaeologist, paleontologist, and inventor. He was the third President of the United States, the second Vice President, the first US Secretary of State, the Governor of Virginia, the cofounder and leader of the Democratic-Republican party, the founder of the University of Virginia, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence; and because of his extensive contributions to the ideals of America’s republicanism, is widely regarded as one of the most influential Founding Fathers, and one of America’s greatest presidents ever.
And how did Jefferson choose to acknowledge the Holy Spirit that was undeniably guiding his remarkable life? The same way everyone else does: by rewriting the Bible. Whereas John Jay thought the Bible was “the best book ever,” Jefferson thought the Good Book could use a solid once-over. Ever hear of the Jefferson Bible? The one with all the magic stuff removed from it? That was him. He thought there was some good morality to be found in the teachings of Jesus, but that all that supernatural hogwash had to go. As a Deist, Jefferson wasn’t concerned with Jesus’ divinity, but his ethics. Of all the Founding Fathers, Jefferson had perhaps the most to say on religion and Christianity. A small sampling:
"We discover in the gospels a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstition, fanaticism and fabrication."
"I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology."
"The priests of the superstition, a bloodthirsty race, are as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel. That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore."
"It has been fifty and sixty years since I read the Apocalypse [Revelation], and then I considered it merely the ravings of a maniac."
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 picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
"Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the Common Law."
"It is not to be understood that I am with him (Jesus Christ) in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism, he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it."
"Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. 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.”
Ooh, ouch. So, Jefferson joins the Deistic ranks of John Adams and Ben Franklin in proffering little more than contempt for the primary tenets of Christianity. And whereas the Church father St. Augustine espoused that faith should trump reason in all cases, Jefferson and Co. said, “Nope. Not on my watch. Get thee behind me, faith! Reason before all else!”
Honest Abe was a country lawyer, an Illinois state legislator, Congressman, and 16th President of the United States. He successfully led America through its greatest internal crisis, the American Civil War. He introduced the measures abolishing slavery, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and promoted the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. He is regarded as the second greatest President in American history (right after George Washington), a position he somehow managed to snag without any appeals to the Almighty.
Religiously, Lincoln had no church affiliations and outright rejected Christianity:
"The Bible is not my book, nor Christianity my profession."
"It was everywhere contended that no Christian ought to vote for me because I belonged to no church, and was suspected of being a Deist." - letter to his supporters after losing 1843 Congressional campaign
“My conception of God is the same as my conception of nature…that it is impossible for either to be personal.” - interview with Opie Read
Close friends of Lincoln had these gems to say about him:
"He [Lincoln] had no faith, in the Christian sense of the term-- he had faith in laws, principles, causes and effects." - Supreme Court Justice David Davis
"He was an avowed and open infidel, and sometimes bordered on atheism. He went further against Christian beliefs and doctrines and principles than any man I have ever heard." - Lincoln’s first law partner, John T. Stewart
"[Mr. Lincoln] never mentioned the name of Jesus, except to scorn and detest the idea of a miraculous conception. He did write a little work on infidelity in 1835-6, and never recanted. He was an out-and-out infidel, and about that there is no mistake." - law partner William Herndon
He also said that Lincoln,
“…assimilated into his own being" the heretical book Age of Reason by Thomas Paine.”
(I supposed it would take a Christian heretic to finally do away with the abominable practice of slavery, what with the Good Book seemingly uninterested in ever getting around to solving the problem.)
James Madison - The "Father of the Constitution"
Up next to the plate steps Mr. Madison. Madison served as the fourth President of the United States, was one of the principal authors of the US Constitution, was responsible for its first 10 Amendments – the Bill of Rights - and authored at least a third of the Federalist Papers along with Jefferson and Hamilton. He worked closely with George Washington to create and organize the federal government, and as Jefferson’s Secretary of State, he supervised the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the Union.
Madison’s personal religious views – if any - were a matter of great privacy to him, and thus not much is known on the subject. Many of his statements make it clear that he had little regard for religious institutions in general and Christianity in particular, and found them to have a negative effect on society:
"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
"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it
for every noble enterprise."
- letter to Williamm Bradford, April 1, 1774
"Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead
of maintaining the purity and efficacy of religion, have had a contrary
operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of
Christianity been on trial. What has 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."
- "A Memorial and Remonstrance", 1785
"Ecclesiastical establishments tend to great ignorance and corruption, all of which facilitate the execution of mischievous projects."
It was perhaps these sentiments that led to James Madison being one of the chief voices for the separation of Church and State:
“Congress should not establish a religion and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contary to their conscience, or that one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combined together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform - Annals of Congress, Sat. Aug 15th, 1789
Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the 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 showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.” - Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822
purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores
the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for
-1803 letter objecting use of government land for churches
“The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.” - Letter to F.L. Schaeffer
Madison further went on to even disapprove off appointing chaplains to the Houses of Congress, and ensuring that National Days of Prayer or religious holidays weren’t sactioned to give special treatment to any particular religion:
“Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In the strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation?”
“The establishment of the chaplainship to Congresss is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.”
“I observe with particular pleasure the view you have taken of the immunity of Religion from civil jurisdiction, in every case where it does not trespass on the private rights or the public peace. This has always been a favorite principle with me; and it was not with my approbation that the deviation from it took place in Congress, when they appointed chaplains, to be paid from the National Treasury. It would have been a much better proof to their constituents of their pious feeling if the members had contributed for the purpose a pittance from their own pockets.”
“There has been another deviation from the strict principle in the Executive proclamations of fasts and festivals, so far, at least, as they have spoken the language of INJUNCTION, or have lost sight of the equality of ALL religious sects in the eye of the Constitution. Whilst I was honored with the executive trust, I found it necessary on more than one occasion to follow the example of predecessors. But I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere DESIGNATIONS of a day on which all who thought proper might UNITE in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith and forms.”
So Madison’s primary contribution with regards to religion was to make sure that no single religion was given preference over another, and to make sure all of them stayed as far the hell away from government as possible.
Thomas Paine, the “firebrand of the American Revolution,” was an author, pamphleteer, radical, inventor, intellectual, and revolutionary. It was Paine’s pamphlets Common Sense – a best-selling work in 18th century America – and The American Crisis that finally persuaded the colonies to revolt against England. If the onset of the American Revolution had to be narrowed to a singular source, Paine’s work would leave no doubt about who its instigator was.
But Paine is perhaps best known (or notorious, depending on your views) for his book The Age of Reason, an assault on organized "revealed" religion combining a compilation of inconsistencies he found in the Bible with his own advocacy of deism, calling for "free rational inquiry" into all subjects, especially religion. Paine thought that faith was idiotic, and that reason alone should be enough to sustain man. He had no time for diplomacy when it came to religion, and he did not “tread lightly.” Paine attacked religion, Christianity, and the Bible with all the fervor of a pack of rabid Tazmanian devils in a china shop:
"The New Testament, they tell us, is founded upon the prophecies of the Old; if so, it must follow the fate of its foundation.''
"Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst."
"Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half of the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call 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.
"What is it the New Testament teaches us? To believe that the Almighty committed debauchery with a woman engaged to be married; and the belief of this debauchery is called faith."
"Take away from Genesis the belief that Moses was the author, on which only the strange belief that it is the word of God has stood, and there remains nothing of Genesis but an anonymous book of stories, fables, and traditionary or invented absurdities, or of downright lies."
"We do not admit the authority of the church with respect to its pretended infallibility, its manufactured miracles, its setting itself up to forgive sins. It was by propagating that belief and supporting it with fire that she kept up her temporal power."
"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. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all."
"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."
"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 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."
It should then come as no great surprise that a man who thought the Bible was a giant load of crap was single-handedly responsible for inciting the colonies into the grossly unbiblical act of revolting against their King and country.
Finally, that brings us to the Father of our Country.
George Washington was commander in chief of the American forces in the American Revolution, chairman of the convention that wrote the United States Constitution, first President of our nation, and regarded as the greatest President in American History. He led the men who turned America from an English colony into a self-governing nation, and his ideals of liberty and democracy set a standard for future presidents and for the whole country.
Washington was baptized into the Church of England when he was less than 2 months old (so you know he gave it a lot of thought). He served on the lay council for his local church in 1765 when the Church of England was still the state religion. Washington frequently accompanied his wife to Christian church services; however, there is no record of his ever taking communion, and he would regularly leave services before communion. On November 4, 1752, George Washington was initiated into Freemasonry in Fredicksburg lodge. On April 29, 1788, he was appointed Worshipful Mater of Alexandria Lodge 22, and held that office when he was elected President. At his inauguration, the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New York administered his Oaths of Office. On September 18, 1793, he laid the cornerstone of the US Capitol wearing full Masonic Grand Master regalia.
Like Madison, Washington was very private about his personal beliefs, which appeared to be some form of deism. We thus have more about his religious persuasion from others than from himself, though he did give us this:
"Religious controversies are
always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which
spring from any other cause. 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, 1792
What others have said about him:
"Gouverneur Morris had often
told me that General Washington believed no more of that system (Christianity)
than did he himself."
- Thomas Jefferson, in his private journal, Feb. 1800
"George Washington's practice of Christianity was limited and superficial because he was not himself a Christian... He repeatedly declined the church's sacraments. Never did he take communion, and when his wife, Martha, did, he waited for her outside the sanctuary... Even on his deathbed, Washington asked for no ritual, uttered no prayer to Christ, and expressed no wish to be attended by His representative." - historian Barry Schwartz
But perhaps the most telling statement regarding America supposedly Christian foundations came from Joel Barlow, the American diplomat to Algiers, in the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli. Barlow had once served under Washington as a chaplain in the revolutionary army. He became good friends with Paine, Jefferson, and read Enlightenment literature. Later he abandoned Christian orthodoxy for rationalism and became an advocate of secular government. He wrote:
"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 of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Musselmen; and 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." - Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11, 1796
Thus we can see that any claims that America’s Founding Fathers were Christians promoting a Christian nation is nothing more than a bit of wishful history revisionism at best.