Some beliefs of America’s founding fathers are often misinterpreted and deserve clarification, particularly concerning the creation of the U.S. Constitution.
In today’s turbulent political climate, ideologues lay claim to the Constitution and intentions of the founding fathers to support their own agendas. Too often, however, present-day ideas and perspectives compromise historical accuracy. The beliefs, intentions, and motivations of the founding fathers are no exception. Reducing the diversity of the founders into one collective belief system creates historical illusions. These illusions, in turn, distort reality. They also lead to competing identities that undermine national unity.
Religion and the Founding Fathers
The founding fathers were a mixture of deists, Christians, and possibly one atheist. Assigning beliefs to the founding fathers collectively, however, is a difficult task. As a group, the founders stopped short of religious establishment because of their own diversity and experience with state sponsored religion in Europe. However, they broadly recognized a “Creator” or “Nature’s God” without ascribing to one particular religion. Their belief systems were products of ancient philosophy, the Enlightenment, and the Reformation. Their diverse beliefs, however, refute any exclusive claim to one religion or belief system.
Morality and the Founding Fathers
Although the founders’ religious beliefs differed, they formed a general consensus on morality. This consensus, however, lay with competing authorities. Most of the founders believed morality was bound to religion, but some also entertained the possibility of a secular moral framework. In a letter to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814,Thomas Jefferson asked, “whence arises the morality of the atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such being exists.” On the other hand, John Adams believed morality could not exist without religion. In a speech to the military in 1798, he claimed, “our Constitution is made only for a moral and religious people.” Their views, therefore, reveal how complex the founders’ positions were on the issue of morality. They did not collectively agree on the foundations of morality and defined it in both religious and secular terms.
Creation of the U.S. Constitution
The Constitution reflects these diverse beliefs. The founders did not specifically protect religious liberty in the Constitution. Some argue it was implied in Article 6 with the statement, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public trust under the United States.” This clause, however, only restricted religious intolerance and did not provide religious freedom. It took the Bill of Rights to address freedom of religion. Another mention of religion includes the presidential oath, which vaguely suggests some might oppose “swearing” for religious reasons. The Constitution also refers to the year of its creation as “the Year of our Lord,” which was simply the standard way of referring to time. In fact, the founders purposefully omitted references to specific religions or beliefs. In 1815, Thomas Jefferson wrote to P.H. Wendover, “religion, as well as reason, confirms the soundness of those principles on which our government has been founded and its rights asserted.” The Constitution, therefore, reflects a balance between a universal nature’s God and Enlightenment principles.
Various groups interpret the founders’ beliefs differently. They often allow their own beliefs, however, to distort the past. Therefore, dominant world-views in the United States are often founded on historical illusions. When groups base their identities on illusions, they compromise national unity. America’s story is not solely tied to religion or secularism. The founding fathers, however, anticipated that the majority of Americans would be religious. Therefore, they excluded religion from the Constitution to protect against religious tyranny. After much debate, they later included a bill of rights to protect religious freedom.