The Christian Nation Myth

Whenever the Supreme Court makes a decision that in any way restricts the intrusion of religion into the affairs of government, a flood of editorials, articles, and letters
protesting the ruling is sure to appear in the newspapers. Many protesters decry these

decisions on the grounds that they conflict with the wishes and intents of the

"founding fathers."

Such a view of American history is completely contrary to known facts. The primary leaders of the so-called founding fathers of our nation were not Bible-believing
Christians; they were deists. Deism was a philosophical belief that was widely accepted by

the colonial intelligentsia at the time of the American Revolution. Its major tenets

included belief in human reason as a reliable means of solving social and political

problems and belief in a supreme deity who created the universe to operate solely by

natural laws. The supreme God of the Deists removed himself entirely from the universe

after creating it. They believed that he assumed no control over it, exerted no influence

on natural phenomena, and gave no supernatural revelation to man. A necessary consequence

of these beliefs was a rejection of many doctrines central to the Christian religion.

Deists did not believe in the virgin birth, divinity, or resurrection of Jesus, the

efficacy of prayer, the miracles of the Bible, or even the divine inspiration of the


These beliefs were forcefully articulated by Thomas Paine in Age of Reason, a book that so outraged his contemporaries that he died rejected and despised
by the nation that had once revered him as "the father of the American

Revolution." To this day, many mistakenly consider him an atheist, even though he was

an out spoken defender of the Deistic view of God. Other important founding fathers who

espoused Deism were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson,

Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, James Madison, and James Monroe.

Fundamentalist Christians are currently working overtime to convince the American public that the founding fathers intended to establish this country on "biblical
principles," but history simply does not support their view. The men mentioned above

and others who were instrumental in the founding of our nation were in no sense

Bible-believing Christians. Thomas Jefferson, in fact, was fiercely anti-cleric. In a

letter to Horatio Spafford in 1814, Jefferson said, "In every country and 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. It is easier to acquire wealth and power

by this combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the

purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all

mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes" (George Seldes, The Great

Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey Citadel Press, 1983, p. 371). In a letter to Mrs.

Harrison Smith, he wrote, "It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our

religion must be read. By the same test the world must judge me. But this does not satisfy

the priesthood. They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested

absurdities. My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never

been a priest" (August 6, 1816).

Jefferson was just as suspicious of the traditional belief that the Bible is "the inspired word of God." He rewrote the story of Jesus as told in the New Testament and
compiled his own gospel version known as The Jefferson Bible, which eliminated all

miracles attributed to Jesus and ended with his burial. The Jeffersonian gospel account

contained no resurrection, a twist to the life of Jesus that was considered scandalous to

Christians but perfectly sensible to Jefferson's Deistic mind. In a letter to John Adams,

he wrote, "To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the

human soul, angels, God, are immaterial is to say they are nothings, or that there is no

God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise" (August 15, 1820). In saying

this, Jefferson was merely expressing the widely held Deistic view of his time, which

rejected the mysticism of the Bible and relied on natural law and human reason to explain

why the world is as it is. Writing to Adams again, Jefferson said, "And the day will

come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb

of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of

Jupiter" (April 11, 1823). These were hardly the words of a devout Bible-believer.

Jefferson didn't just reject the Christian belief that the Bible was "the inspired word of God"; he rejected the Christian system too. In Notes on the State of
, he said of this religion, "There is not one redeeming feature in our

superstition of Christianity. It has made one half the world fools, and the other half

hypocrites" (quoted by newspaper columnist William Edelen, "Politics and

Religious Illiteracy," Truth Seeker, Vol. 121, No. 3, p. 33). Anyone today who

would make a statement like this or others we have quoted from Jefferson's writings would

be instantly branded an infidel, yet modern Bible fundamentalists are frantically trying

to cast Jefferson in the mold of a Bible believing Christian. They do so, of course,

because Jefferson was just too important in the formation of our nation to leave him out

if Bible fundamentalists hope to sell their "Christian-nation" claim to the

public. Hence, they try to rewrite history to make it appear that men like Thomas

Jefferson had intended to build our nation on "biblical principles." The irony

of this situation is that the Christian leaders of Jefferson's time knew where he stood on

"biblical principles," and they fought desperately, but unsuccessfully, to

prevent his election to the presidency. Saul K. Padover's biography related the bitterness

of the opposition that the clergy mounted against Jefferson in the campaign of 1800

The religious issue was dragged out, and stirred up flames of hatred and intolerance. Clergymen, mobilizing their heaviest artillery of thunder and brimstone, threatened
Christians with all manner of dire consequences if they should vote for the "in

fidel" from Virginia. This was particularly true in New England, where the clergy

stood like Gibraltar against Jefferson (Jefferson A Great American's Life and


Mentor Books, 1964, p.116).

William Linn, a Dutch Reformed minister in New York City, made perhaps the most violent of all attacks on Jefferson's character, all of it based on religious matters. In a
pamphlet entitled Serious Considerations on the Election of a President, Linn

"accused Jefferson of the heinous crimes of not believing in divine revelation and of

a design to destroy religion and `introduce immorality'" (Padover, p. 116). He

referred to Jefferson as a "true infidel" and insisted that "(a)n infidel

like Jefferson could not, should not, be elected" (Padover, p. 117). He concluded the

pamphlet with this appeal for "Christians to defeat the `infidel' from Virginia"

Will you, then, my fellow-citizens, with all this evidence... vote for Mr. Jefferson?... As to myself, were Mr. Jefferson connected with me by the nearest ties of
blood, and did I owe him a thousand obligations, I would not, and could not vote for him.

No; sooner than stretch forth my hand to place him at the head of the nation "Let

mine arms fall from my shoulder blade, and mine arm be broken from the bone" (quoted

by Padover, p. 117).

Why would contemporary clergymen have so vigorously opposed Jefferson's election if he were as devoutly Christian as modern preachers claim? The answer is that Jefferson was not
a Christian, and the preachers of his day knew that he wasn't.

In the heat of the campaign Jefferson wrote a letter to Benjamin Rush in which he angrily commented on the clerical efforts to assassinate his personal character "I
have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the

mind of man." That statement has been inscribed on Jefferson's monument in

Washington. Most people who read it no doubt think that Jefferson was referring to

political tyrants like the King of England, but in reality, he was referring to the

fundamentalist clergymen of his day.

After Jefferson became president, he did not compromise his beliefs. As president, he refused to issue Thanksgiving proclamations, a fact that Justice Souter referred to in his
concurring opinion with the majority in Lee vs. Weisman, the recent supreme-court

decision that ruled prayers at graduation ceremonies unconstitutional. Early in his first

presidential term, Jefferson declared his firm belief in the separation of church and

state in a letter to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptists "Believing with you that

religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to

none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach

actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the

whole American people which declared that their legislature should `make no law respecting

an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a

wall of separation between church and state."

Before sending the letter to Danbury, Jefferson asked his attorney general, Levi Lincoln, to review it. Jefferson told Lincoln that he considered the letter a means of
"sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and

become rooted among their political tenets" (quoted by Rob Boston in "Myths and

Mischief," Church and State, March 1992). If this was indeed Jefferson's wish, he

certainly succeeded. Twice, in Reynolds vs. the United States (1879) and Everson vs.

Board of Education
(1947), the Supreme Court cited Jefferson's letter as "an

authoritative declaration of the scope of the [First] Amendment" and agreed that the

intention of the First Amendment was "to erect `a wall of separation between church

and state.'" Confronted with evidence like this, some fundamentalists will admit that

Thomas Jefferson was not a Bible-believer but will insist that most of the other

"founding fathers"--men like Washington, Madison, and Franklin--were Christians

whose intention during the formative years of our country was to establish a

"Christian nation." Again, however, history does not support their claim.

James Madison, Jefferson's close friend and political ally, was just as vigorously opposed to religious intrusions into civil affairs as Jefferson was. In 1785, when the
Commonwealth of Virginia was considering passage of a bill "establishing a provision

for Teachers of the Christian Religion," Madison wrote his famous "Memorial and

Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" in which he presented fifteen reasons why

government should not be come involved in the support of any religion. This paper, long

considered a landmark document in political philosophy, was also cited in the majority

opinion in Lee vs. Weisman. The views of Madison and Jefferson prevailed in the Virginia

Assembly, and in 1786, the Assembly adopted the statute of religious freedom of which

Jefferson and Madison were the principal architects. The preamble to this bill said that

"to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions

which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical." The statute itself was much more

specific than the establishment clause of the U. S. Constitution "Be it therefore

enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any

religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained,

molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his

religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument

to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise

[sic] diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities".

Realizing that whatever legislation an elected assembly passed can be later repealed, Jefferson ended the statute with a statement of contempt for any legislative body that
would be so presumptuous "And though we well know this Assembly, elected by the

people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts

of succeeding assemblies, constituted with the powers equal to our own, and that therefore

to declare this act irrevocable, would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare,

and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind,

and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its

operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right" (emphasis added).

After George Washington's death, Christians made an intense effort to claim him as one of their own. This effort was based largely on the grounds that Washington had regularly
attended services with his wife at an Episcopal Church and had served as a vestryman in

the church. On August 13, 1835, a Colonel Mercer, involved in the effort, wrote to Bishop

William White, who had been one of the rectors at the church Washington had attended. In

the letter, Mercer asked if "Washington was a communicant of the Protestant Episcopal

church, or whether he occasionally went to the communion only, or if ever he did so at

all..." (John Remsberg, Six Historic Americans, p. 103). On August 15, 1835, White

sent Mercer this reply

In regard to the subject of your inquiry, truth requires me to say that Gen. Washington never received the communion in the churches of which I am the parochial minister. Mrs.
Washington was an habitual communicant.... I have been written to by many on that point,

and have been obliged to answer them as I now do you (Remsberg, p. 104).

In his Annals of the American Pulpit, The Reverend William B. Sprague, D.D., wrote a biographical sketch of the Reverend James Abercrombie, the other pastor of the
congregation Washington attended. In this work, Sprague quoted Abercrombie in confirmation

of what White had written to Mercer

One incident in Dr. Abercrombie's experience as a clergyman, in connection with the Father of his Country, is especially worthy of record; and the following account of it was
given by the Doctor himself, in a letter to a friend, in 1831 shortly after there had been

some public allusion to it "With respect to the inquiry you make I can only state the

following facts; that, as pastor of the Episcopal church, observing that, on sacramental

Sundays, Gen. Washington, immediately after the desk and pulpit services, went out with

the greater part of the congregation--always leaving Mrs. Washington with the other

communicants--she invariably being one--I considered it my duty in a sermon on Public

Worship, to state the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated

stations who uniformly turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord's Supper. I

acknowledge the remark was intended for the President; and as such he received it"

(From Annals of the American Pulpit, Vol. 5, p. 394, quoted by Remsberg, pp. 104-105).

Abercrombie went on to explain that he had heard through a senator that Washington had discussed the reprimand with others and had told them that "as he had never been a
communicant, were he to become one then it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of

religious zeal, arising altogether from his elevated station" (Ibid.). Abercrombie

then said that Washington "never afterwards came on the morning of sacramental

Sunday" (Ibid.).

Here is firsthand testimony from the rectors of the church that Washington attended with his wife, and they both claimed that he never participated in the communion service.
Writing in the Episcopal Recorder, the Reverend E. D. Neill said that Washington

"was not a communicant, notwithstanding all the pretty stories to the contrary, and

after the close of the sermon on sacramental Sundays, [he] had fallen into the habit of

retiring from the church while his wife remained and communed" (Remsberg, p. 107). In

this article, Neill also made reference to Abercrombie's reprimand of Washington from the

pulpit, so those who knew Washington personally or who knew those who had known him all

seem to agree that Washington was never a "communicant." Remsberg continued at

length in his chapter on Washington to quote the memoirs and letters of Washington's

associates, who all agreed that the president had never once been known to participate in

the communion service, a fact that weakens the claim that he was a Christian. Would

preachers today consider someone a devout Christian if he just attended services with his

wife but never took the communion?

As for Washington's membership in the vestry, for several years he did actively serve as one of the twelve vestrymen of Truro parish, Virginia, as had also his father. This,
however, cannot be construed as proof that he was a Christian believer. The vestry at that

time was also the county court, so in order to have certain political powers, it was

necessary for one to be a vestryman. On this matter, Paul F. Boller made this observation

Actually, under the Anglican establishment in Virginia before the Revolution, the duties of a parish vestry were as much civil as religious in nature and it is not possible
to deduce any exceptional religious zeal from the mere fact of membership.* Even Thomas

Jefferson was a vestryman for a while. Consisting of the leading gentlemen of the parish

in position and influence (many of whom, like Washington, were also at one time or other

members of the County Court and of the House of Burgeses), the parish vestry, among other

things, levied the parish taxes, handled poor relief, fixed land boundaries in the parish,

supervised the construction, furnishing, and repairs of churches, and hired ministers and

paid their salaries (George Washington & Religion, Dallas Southern Methodist

University Press, 1963, p. 26).

A footnote where the asterisk appears cited Meade as proof that avowed unbelievers sometimes served as vestrymen "As Bishop William Meade put it, somewhat nastily, in
1857, `Even Mr. Jefferson and [George] Wythe, who did not conceal their disbelief in

Christianity, took their parts in the duties of vestrymen, the one at Williamsburg, the

other at Albermarle; for they wished to be men of influence'" (William Meade,


Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia
, 2 vols., Philadelphia, 1857, I, p. 191).

Clearly, then, one cannot assume from Washington's presence at church services and his membership in the Truro parish vestry that he was a Christian believer. Is there any other
evidence to suggest that he was a Christian? The Reverend Bird Wilson, an Episcopal

minister in Albany, New York, preached a sermon in October 1831 in which he stated that

"among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of

religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism" (Paul F. Boller, George Washington

& Religion
, pp. 14-15). He went on to describe Washington as a "great and good

man" but "not a professor of religion." Wilson said that he was

"really a typical eighteenth century Deist, not a Christian, in his religious

outlook" (Ibid.). Wilson wasn't just speaking about matters that he had not

researched, because he had carefully investigated his subject before he preached this

sermon. Among others, Wilson had inquired of the Reverend Abercrombie [identified earlier

as the rector of the church Washington had attended] concerning Washing ton's religious

views. Abercrombie's response was brief and to the point "Sir, Washington was a

Deist" (Remsberg, p. 110). Those, then, who were best positioned to know Washington's

private religious beliefs did not consider him a Christian, and the Reverend Abercrombie,

who knew him personally and pastored the church he attended with his wife flatly said that

Washington was a Deist.

The Reverend Bird Wilson, who was just a few years removed from being a contemporary of the so-called founding fathers, said further in the above-mentioned sermon that "the
founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels, and that of the presidents who had thus

far been elected [George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James

Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson] _not a one had professed a belief in

Christianity_" (Remsberg, p. 120, emphasis added).

Dr. Wilson's sermon, which was published in the Albany Daily Advertiser the month it was delivered also made an interesting observation that flatly contradicts the frantic
efforts of present-day fundamentalists to make the "founding fathers" orthodox


When the war was over and the victory over our enemies won, and the blessings and happiness of liberty and peace were secured, the Constitution was framed and God was
neglected. He was not merely forgotten. He was absolutely voted out of the


The proceedings, as published by Thompson, the secretary, and the history of the day, show

that the question was gravely debated whether God should be in the Constitution or not,

and after a solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it.... There is not only in

the theory of our government no recognition of God's laws and sovereignty, but its

practical operation, its administration, has been conformable to its theory. Those who

have been called to administer the government have not been men making any public

profession of Christianity
.... Washington was a man of valor and wisdom. He was esteemed

by the whole world as a great and good man; but he was not a professing


(quoted by Remsberg, pp. 120-121, emphasis added).

The publication of Wilson's sermon in the Daily Advertiser attracted the attention of Robert Owen, who then personally visited Wilson to discuss the matter of Washington's
religious views. Owen summarized the results of that visit in a letter to Amos Gilbert

dated November 13, 1831

I called last evening on Dr. Wilson, as I told you I should, and I have seldom derived more pleasure from a short interview with anyone. Unless my discernment of character has
been grievously at fault, I met an honest man and sincere Christian. But you shall have

the particulars. A gentleman of this city accompanied me to the Doctor's residence. We

were very courteously received. I found him a tall, commanding figure, with a countenance

of much benevolence, and a brow indicative of deep thought, apparently approaching fifty

years of age. I opened the interview by stating that though personally a stranger to him,

I had taken the liberty of calling in consequence of having perused an interesting sermon

of his, which had been reported in the Daily Advertiser of this city, and regarding which,

as he probably knew, a variety of opinions prevailed. In a discussion, in which I had

taken a part, some of the facts as there reported had been questioned; and I wished to

know from him whether the reporter had fairly given his words or not.... I then read to

him from a copy of the Daily Advertiser the paragraph which regards Washington, beginning,

"Washington was a man," etc. and ending, "absented himself altogether from

the church." "I endorse," said Dr. Wilson, with emphasis, "every word

of that. Nay, I do not wish to conceal from you any part of the truth, even what I have

not given to the public. Dr. Abercrombie said more than I have repeated. At the close of

our conversation on the subject his emphatic expression was--for I well remember the very

words--`Sir, Washington was a Deist.'"

In concluding the interview, Dr. Wilson said "I have diligently perused every line that Washington ever gave to the public, and I do not find one expression in which he
pledges him self as a believer in Christianity
. I think anyone who will candidly do as I

have done, will come to the conclusion that he was a Deist and nothing more"

(Remsberg, pp. 121-122, emphasis added).

In February 1800, after Washington's death, Thomas Jefferson wrote this statement in his personal journal

Dr. Rush told me (he had it from Asa Green) that when the clergy addressed General Washington, on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation
that he had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in

the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him

at length to disclose publicly whether he was a Christian or not. However, he observed,

the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address

particularly, except that, which he passed over without notice....

I know that Gouverneur Morris [principal drafter of the constitution], who claimed to be in his secrets, and believed him self to be so, has often told me that General
Washington believed no more in that system [Christianity] than he did" (quoted in

Remsberg, p. 123 from Jefferson's Works, Vol. 4, p. 572, emphasis added).

The "Asa" Green referred to by Jefferson was probably the Reverend Ashbel Green, who was chaplain to congress during Washington's administration. If so, he was
certainly in a position to know the information that "Asa" Green had passed

along to Jefferson. Reverend Ashbel Green became the president of Princeton College after

serving eight years as the congressional chaplain. He was also a signer of the Declaration

of Independence and a prominent figure in the colonial Presbyterian Church (Remsberg, p.

124). His testimony has to be given more weight than what modern day clerics may think

about Washington's religious beliefs.

Dr. Moncure D. Conway, who was once employed to edit a volume of Washington's letters, wrote an article entitled "The Religion of Washington," from which Remsberg
quoted the following

In editing a volume of Washington's private letters for the Long Island Historical Society, I have been much impressed by indications that this great historic personality
represented the Liberal religious tendency of his time. That tendency was to respect

religious organizations as part of the social order, which required some minister to visit

the sick, bury the dead, and perform marriages. It was considered in nowise inconsistent

with disbelief of the clergyman's doctrines to contribute to his support, or even to be a

vestryman in his church.

In his many letters to his adopted nephew and younger relatives, he admonishes them about their manners and morals, but in no case have I been able to discover any
suggestion that they should read the Bible, keep the Sabbath, go to church, or any warning

against Infidelity.

Washington had in his library the writings of Paine, Priestley, Voltaire, Frederick the Great, and other heretical works (pp. 128-129, emphasis added).

In a separate submission to the New York Times, Conway said that "Washington, like most scholarly Virginians of his time, was a Deist.... Contemporary evidence shows
that in mature life Washington was a Deist, and did not commune, which is quite consistent

with his being a vestryman. In England, where vestries have secular functions, it is not

unusual for Unitarians to vestrymen, there being no doctrinal subscription required for

that office
. Washington's letters during the Revolution occasionally indicate his

recognition of the hand of Providence in notable public events, but in the thousands of

his letters I have never been able to find the name of Christ or any reference to

" (quoted by Remsberg, pp. 129-130, emphasis added).

The absence of Christian references in Washington's personal papers and conversation was noted by historian Clinton Rossiter

The last and least skeptical of these rationalists [Washington] loaded his First Inaugural Address with appeals to the "Great Author," "Almighty
Being," "invisible hand," and "benign parent of the human race,"

but apparently could not bring himself to speak the word "God" ("The United

States in 1787," 1787 The Grand Convention, New York W, W, Norton & Co., 1987,

p. 36).

These terms by which Washington referred to "God" in his inaugural address are dead giveaways that he was Deistic in his views. The uninformed see the expression
"nature's God" in documents like the Declaration of Independence and wrongly

interpret it as evidence of Christian belief in those who wrote and signed it, but in

reality it is a sure indication that the document was Deistic in origin. Deists preferred

not to use the unqualified term "God" in their conversation and writings because

of its Christian connotations. Accordingly, they substituted expressions like those that

Washington used in his inaugural address or else they referred to their creator as

"nature's God," the deity who had created the world and then left it to operate

by natural law.

Moncure Conway also stated that "(t)here is no evidence to show that Washington, even in early life, was a believer in Christianity" (Ibid.). Remsberg also noted
that Conway stated that Washington's father had been a Deist and that his mother "was

not excessively religious" (Ibid.).

Christians have often claimed that most non-Christians make death-bed professions of faith when they realize that they are dying. These claims almost always turn out to be
unverifiable assertions, but Conway made it very clear that Washington, even on his death

bed, made no profession of faith

When the end was near, Washington said to a physician present--an ancestor of the writer of these notes--"I am not afraid to go." With his right fingers on his
left wrist he counted his own pulses, which beat his funeral march to the grave. "He

bore his distress," so next day wrote one present, "with astonishing fortitude,

and conscious, as he declared, several hours before his death, of his approaching

dissolution, he resigned his breath with the greatest composure, having the full

possession of his reason to the last moment." Mrs. Washington knelt beside his bed,

but no word passed on religious matters. With the sublime taciturnity which had marked his

life he passed out of existence, leaving no act or word which can be turned to the

service of superstition, cant, or bigotry
" (quoted by Remsberg, pp. 132-133,

emphasis added).

Some Christians were of course involved in the shaping of our nation, but their influence was minor compared to the ideological contributions of the Deists who pressed
for the formation of a secular nation. In describing the composition of the delegations to

the constitutional convention, the historian Clinton Rossiter said this about their

religious views

Whatever else it might turn out to be, the Convention would not be a `Barebone's Parliament.' Although it had its share of strenuous Christians like Strong and Bassett,
ex-preachers like Baldwin and Williamson, and theologians like Johnson and Ellsworth, the

gathering at Philadelphia was largely made up of men in whom the old fires were under

control or had even flickered out. Most were nominally members of one of the traditional

churches in their part of the country--the New Englanders Congregationalists, and

Presbyterians, the Southerners Episcopalians, and the men of the Middle States everything

from backsliding Quakers to stubborn Catholics--and most were men who could take their

religion or leave it along. Although no one in this sober gathering would have dreamed of

invoking the Goddess of Reason, neither would anyone have dared to proclaim that his

opinions had the support of the God of Abraham and Paul. The Convention of 1787 was

highly rationalist and even secular in spirit" ("The Men of Philadelphia,"

1787 The Grand Convention, New York W. W. Norton & Company, 1987, pp. 147-148,

emphasis added).

Needless to say, this view of the religious beliefs of the constitutional delegates differs radically from the picture that is often painted by modern fundamentalist leaders.

At the constitutional convention, Luther Martin a Maryland representative urged the inclusion of some kind of recognition of Christianity in the constitution on the grounds
that "it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors

of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism." How ever, the delegates to the

convention rejected this proposal and, as the Reverend Bird Wilson stated in his sermon

quoted above, drafted the constitution as a secular document. God was nowhere mentioned in


As a matter of fact, the document that was finally approved at the constitutional convention mentioned religion only once, and that was in Article VI, Section 3, which
stated that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any

office or public trust under the United States." Now if the delegates at the

convention had truly intended to establish a "Christian nation," why would they

have put a statement like this in the constitution and nowhere else even refer to

religion? Common sense is enough to convince any reasonable person that if the intention

of these men had really been the formation of a "Christian nation," the

constitution they wrote would have surely made several references to God, the Bible,

Jesus, and other accouterments of the Christian religion, and rather than expressly

forbidding ANY religious test as a condition for holding public office in the new nation,

it would have stipulated that allegiance to Christianity was a requirement for public

office. After all, when someone today finds a tract left at the front door of his house or

on the windshield of his car, he doesn't have to read very far to determine that its

obvious intention is to further the Christian religion. Are we to assume, then, that the

founding fathers wanted to establish a Christian nation but were so stupid that they

couldn't write a constitution that would make their purpose clear to those who read it?

Clearly, the founders of our nation intended government to maintain a neutral posture in matters of religion. Anyone who would still insist that the intention of the founding
fathers was to establish a Christian nation should review a document written during the

administration of George Washington. Article 11 of the Treaty with Tripoli declared in

part that "the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the

Christian religion..." (Treaties and Other International Acts of the United


ed. Hunter Miller, Vol. 2, U. S. Government Printing Office, 1931, p. 365). This treaty

was negotiated by the American diplomat Joel Barlow during the administration of George

Washington. Washington read it and approved it, although it was not ratified by the senate

until John Adams had become president. When Adams signed it, he added this statement to

his signature "Now, be it known, that I, John Adams, President of the United States

of America, having seen and considered the said treaty, do, by and within the consent of

the Senate, accept, ratify and confirm the same, and every clause and article

thereof." This document and the approval that it received from our nation's first and

second presidents and the U. S. Senate as constituted in 1797 do very little to support

the popular notion that the founding fathers established our country as a "Christian


Confronted with evidence like the foregoing, diehard fundamentalists will argue that even if the so-called founding fathers did not purposefully establish a Christian nation
our country was founded by people looking for religious liberty, and our population has

always been overwhelmingly Christian, but even these points are more dubious than most

Christian-nation advocates dare suspect. Admittedly, some colonists did come to America in

search of religious freedom, but the majority were driven by monetary motives. They simply

wanted to improve their economic status. In New England, where the quest for religious

freedom had been a strong motive for leaving the Old World, the colonists quickly

established governments that were just as intolerant, if not more so, of religious dissent

than what they had fled from in Europe. Quakers were exiled and then executed if they

returned, and "witches," condemned on flimsy spectral evidence, were hanged.

This is hardly a part of our past that modern fundamentalists can point to as a model to

be emulated, although their rhetoric often gives cause to wonder if this isn't exactly

what they want today.

As for the religious beliefs of the general population in pre and post revolutionary times, it wasn't nearly as Christian as most people think. Lynn R. Buzzard, executive
director of the Christian Legal Society (a national organization of Christian lawyers) has

admitted that there is little proof to support the claim that the colonial population was

overwhelmingly Christian. "Not only were a good many of the revolutionary leaders

more deist than Christian," Buzzard wrote, "but the actual number of church

members was rather small. Perhaps as few as five percent of the populace were church

members in 1776" (Schools They Haven't Got a Prayer, Elgin, Illinois David C. Cook

Publishing, 1982, p. 81). Historian Richard Hofstadter says that "perhaps as many as

ninety percent of the Americans were unchurched in 1790" (Anti-Intellectualism in

American Life
, New York Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, p. 82) and goes on to say that

"mid-eighteenth century America had a smaller proportion of church members than any

other nation in Christendom," noting that "in 1800 [only] about one of every

fifteen Americans was a church member" (p. 89). Historian James MacGregor Burns

agrees with these figures, noting that "(t)here had been a `very wintry season' for

religion every where in America after the Revolution" (The American Experiment

Vineyard of Liberty
, New York Vintage Books, 1983, p. 493). He adds that "ninety

percent of the people lay outside the churches."

Historians, who deal with facts rather than wishes, paint an entirely different picture of the religious composition of America during its formative years than the image of a
nation founded on "biblical principles" that modern Bible fundamentalists are

trying to foist upon us. Our founding fathers established a religiously neutral nation,

and a tragedy of our time is that so many people are striving to undo all that was

accomplished by the wisdom of the founding fathers who framed for us a constitution that

would protect the religious freedom of everyone regardless of personal creed. An even

greater tragedy is that they many times hoodwink the public into believing that they are

only trying to make our nation what the founding fathers would want it to be. Separation

of church and state is what the founding fathers wanted for the nation, and we must never

allow anyone to distort history to make it appear otherwise.

Views: 193

Comment by Dave G on November 18, 2009 at 6:36pm
Thank you, Dan.
Comment by Dan on November 18, 2009 at 7:24pm
Don't thank me, Thank your recruiter.


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