If you watch or listen to the news on a consistent basis, you'll hear it a couple of times a week: the Founding Fathers, good Christians themselves, intended the fledgling United States to be a "Christian Nation" ─ that is, founded on good Christian (biblical) principles. Fundamentalist Christians these days are working very hard to make you believe it in an effort to get their conservative agenda(s) past you. But let's face reality: the facts just don't agree with them. The idea of the United States as a "Christian nation" is contrary to the facts (not that that has ever stopped the Religious Right), and no amount of right wing rhetoric can make it so.
Deism as a Belief System
The Founding Fathers, you say? Not believe in God?
I didn't say that. They did believe. It's just that our Founding Fathers were not Bible-believing Christians. They didn't believe in the Christian god as we tend to think of him. Consider: it was the late 1700's. The guiding principles of the day, those espoused by the intelligentsia, (and our Founding Fathers certainly were members of that class) were the philosophical ideals of Deism. Deism's most major tenet says that an All-Powerful Creator made the universe, fashioned the heavens, the earth, the trees, the stars, the animals, and yes, Man. He created it, started it up, and then walked away, leaving the entire of Creation simply to carry on without him. He exerted no further control over it; he had no influence on its natural phenomena or events; he had no further input on the course of the development of the various forms of Life that he had created. This is what our Founding Fathers believed. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, James Monroe, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Paine, among others, were all Deists.
These beliefs were clearly and eruditely elucidated by Paine in "Age of Reason," and he so affronted the men of his day that he, who had been called "the father of the American Revolution," died rejected and despised by the very population that had once so revered him.
Thomas Jefferson was an outspoken critic of anything religion-based. In a letter to Horatio Spafford in 1814, Jefferson wrote, "In every country and every age, the priest had 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 into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore safer for their purposes."
Jefferson was just as hostile to the traditional belief that the Bible is "the inspired word of God." He wrote the Jefferson Bible, a translation of the New Testament that contained no miracles by Jesus, no resurrection, and no references to an immaterial afterlife. It made perfect sense to Jefferson's Deistic ideas. In a letter to John Adams, he wrote, "To talk of immaterial things 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). This statement reflected the Deistic views of his time, which rejected mysticism, and relied on natural law and human reason to explain the world. In another letter to Adams he wrote, "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). He said that there was "not one redeeming feature in our superstition of Christianity," and said that Christianity had made "one-half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites." These are hardly the words of a devout Bible-believing Christian.
Madison was Jefferson's personal friend and political ally, and he was just as opposed to religious intrusions into civil government as was Jefferson. During a session of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Madison presented a list of fifteen reasons why government should not support any religion. This list was part of his famous "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," which became a landmark document of political philosophy and was included in Lee vs. Weisman, the 1992 Supreme Court decision that dealt with prayers led by religious authority figures at public school graduation ceremonies.
Though nominally an Anglican (Episcopalian), Washington, a high-ranking Freemason, spoke in decidedly Deistic terms. He spoke of the creator as the "Supreme Architect" of the universe, who built the systems, set them in motion, then stepped back.
He seemed to be particularly reticent about communion. He would attend church with his wife but would leave before the rest of the congregation took communion. Here is a firsthand account by the rectors of the church that Washington attended. 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." So, President Washington could hardly be called a religious man simply because he went to church with his wife, but never stayed to take communion.
Adams was a Unitarian. He didn't believe in the Holy Trinity or the divinity of Jesus, both core concepts of Christian dogma. Christianity, he said, was not impressive. "Thus," he wrote in his diary, "mystery is made a convenient cover for absurdity."
Clamorings of the Religious Right and the Silence of the Constitution
The Religious Right and others (Sarah Palin is bad about this) would tell you that the Founding Fathers intended the United States to be as Christian as Billy Graham. They would tell you that prayer in schools, invocations in government meetings, and "In God We Trust" in our money are as American as apple pie. They would tell you that leaving "Under God" in our Pledge of Allegiance is as patriotic as Patrick Henry. It's all simply nonsense. As we have seen, the various Fathers were decidedly un-religious; they were reluctant to involve religion in the new government in any way, but preferred to maintain a strict and well-defined separation of church and state. Reflecting that desire, the Constitution that resulted from the Convention of 1787, is mostly silent on the topic of God and religion. It contains just one reference to a deity: "in the year of our Lord," a phrase that is still commonly used today on legal documents. There are two mentions of the word "religion" (or a derivation thereof): Article Six forbids a "religious test" for holding public office, and the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a state religion while simultaneously providing for its free exercise.
The Final Analysis
So, one would begin to think that the Founding Fathers did not trust the Christianity of the Bible -- the Christianity of the Religious Right today. And if they did not, why would they have based a nation on it? What they did trust were the checks and balances systems of the secular Constitution they wrote. The true will of the Founding Fathers was to keep religion out of the government, that there be a true and definable separation of the state and the church so that there could be no repeat of European monarchy/ theocracy on this continent. It's all written -- or rather not written -- in the Constitution.
As for the United States being a Christian Nation? John Adams undoubtedly stated the matter as clearly as it can be stated when he wrote in the Treaty of Tripoli, "The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." Case closed.