America’s Religious Past

0
544
Declaration of Independence

America’s drift towards Christian dominance isn’t supported by its early history or constitution

Many political leaders wish to return America to the religious days of old, namely in the name of Jesus and Christianity. But here’s a thought: were our founding fathers ever really that religious? In short, the answer is yes, they were religious, but two things are needed to be known before that answer can be accurately explained. One, Europe and America were in the middle of the Enlightenment age, where men of intellect questioned the role of the church. And two, it was they who separated the church and state.

What were the religious preferences of the founding fathers?

Of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, there are many varied religious preferences, from Calvinism to Catholicism. What many people and websites will go by is what the founders family history was. For instance, George Washington was considered an Episcopalian. Although he attended church when he could, he never once took communion or wrote about Jesus and his teachings in any of his papers. Though this does not mean he wasn’t a devout Christian, many historians today believe he, along with other founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, was a deist.

Deism is, in a few ways, similar to agnosticism. Deists believe in a supreme being (not necessary the God of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim faith) who never interferes with the lives of regular humans. They do not believe in miracles in the religious sense, and some even believe that Jesus was real, though only human. Most men of the Enlightenment read the bible, though deists would accept that the teachings of the Bible were good lessons, but would ignore the miracles.

Separation of the church and early state

Documents like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence offer evidence of deist influence. In the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” Yes, God is mentioned in the first paragraph, but after the “Laws of Nature” and only in the context of “Nature’s God”. And remember, during this time, all other governments were ruled by a monarch, with absolute power given from God. Saying people gave the government power was a very radical idea. Also, in the U.S. Constitution, Article 6, section 3, it is written that “no religious test shall be required” to attain or qualify for any office in the United States. Meaning Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Baptists, and Native Americans could run for office without the fear of being prosecuted for their religious beliefs.

More importantly, in the Treaty of Tripoli, signed in 1797, written in Article 11, “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” This treaty was written overseas and signed in Tripoli, then sent to Washington D.C., where it was read aloud to the entire Senate before being voted on. It should be noted that there were no discussions or debates about this part (each senator had a copy of the treaty to read along) and that the treaty was passed with a unanimous vote. President John Adams then signed it into law, not changing one syllable. In 1797, America was a land with no christian ties to its government.

The religion and views of the first four presidents

Many agree (grudgingly) that Washington was a deist, though he was open to all religions. To help welcome any and all troops in the French and Indian Wars (the Seven Years War) and especially during the American Revolutionary War, he opened recruiting to all people of all religious backgrounds. John Adams, aside from approving the Treaty of Tripoli, wrote, in his book A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (published in 1787), that the original 13 colonies came together “on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery”.

Thomas Jefferson was more outspoken in his deist manners as he wasn’t, like Washington, against religion in itself, but instead he was against the greedy churches and priesthoods. He accepted the idea of Jesus, being a man, not the son of God. For Jefferson, the teachings of Jesus were the important lessons from the Bible, which he reedited once, taking out all aspects of miracles and angels.

James Madison, in 1785, wrote an article called “The Memorial and Remonstrance” to try and stop Virginia from passing a tax that would support teachers and all ministers of christian denominations. In 1789, Madison also stated that Congress should never create a law to force a sole religion for the United States, and instead should allow men to choose and worship as they please. He would, above all other founders, be the torch bearer for the First Amendment.

In conclusion

America has never had a christian background, much to the contrary of what many believe today. America was founded on the belief of freedom of religion, and as such, many founding fathers, early presidents and important documents of the time specified the importance of open religion. The idea of heading back to our Christian roots isn’t going back to the foundation of America, but rather back to a day when Britain was in control of America and we were but lonely and ignored colonists.

References:

  1. Adams, John. “Defence of the Constitutions of the United States”
  2. Loconte, Joseph. “James Madison”
  3. Robinson, B.A. “Deism”