Evangelical Christians are fond of asserting that this country was founded on Christianity. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Founding Fathers all believed in God, but not necessarily the Christian god. Most were deists, believing that God and nature were substantially equivalent and that we humans create our own future and are solely responsible for our past. A minority of the Founding Fathers were Christians, but all believed that whatever your religion, it should be kept completely separate from government.
There is not one single mention of God in the Constitution of the United States. In the date, at the bottom, is written “In the Year of Our Lord,” but that was standard form for the way dates were written on official documents back then. We use the abbreviation A.D. today, which is short for the Latin phrase Anno Domini, which means “in the year of our Lord.”
Looking back at the writings of the men we call the Founding Fathers, we can get a clear understanding of what they actually thought about religion in society. Although it was during a time when few doubted the existence of a supreme being, call it God, Providence, the Creator, or the Almighty, and many respected the lessons of the man named Jesus, few of them would be regarded as what we today call born-again Christians. They worked more to inform the populous about how religion tends to spoil and corrupt government than they worked to spread the gospel.
John Adams stressed the importance of reason over religion when he said, “When philosophic reason is clear and certain by intuition or necessary induction, no subsequent revelation supported by prophecies or miracles can supersede it.”
This was an echo of what Benjamin Franklin had written earlier in Poor Richard’s Almanac. He wrote, “The way to see by Faith is to shut the eye of Reason.”
And in a letter to his son, Adams wrote, “Let the human mind loose. It must be loose. It will be loose. Superstition and dogmatism cannot confine it.”
At a seeming jab at the all-knowing fundamentalists of the day, Adams wrote, “God is an essence that we know nothing of.”
And, in the clearest indication of all that the U.S. was never meant to be a Christian nation, in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli which Adams signed, are printed these words: “The United States is not a Christian nation any more than it is a Jewish or a Mohammedan nation.”
Although Franklin often wrote glowingly about religion’s roll in society, he also pulled no punches in his contempt for its dogma. “I have found Christian dogma unintelligible. Early in life I absented myself from Christian assemblies,” he wrote in his autobiographical piece, “Toward the Mystery.”
Thomas Jefferson was one of our founders who had an utterly cynical view of religion and Christianity. He wrote in his Notes on Virginia, "I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.” And, "Religions are all alike - founded upon fables and mythologies.”
And in a warning against allowing religion too much influence on government, Jefferson wrote, “In no instance have . . . the churches been guardians of the liberties of the people.”
Even George Washington was not a religious person. Although he attended church on a regular basis, he did not participate, choosing instead to just sit quietly and listen.
Washington had almost nothing to say about his own religion. He was a deist. He thought religion had a stabilizing influence on society, but he never took communion at his church and was once reprimanded in public by his pastor for not setting a good example in church. He never attended that church again. But, as a deist, he thought government should be inclusive and open to all religions and even atheists.
In a 1794 letter asking for laborers to build his Mount Vernon Estate, he wrote, “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mohometans, Jews or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists.”
John Quincy Adams was a big proponent of the separation of church and state. In an 1823 letter to Richard Anderson he wrote, “Civil liberty can be established on no foundation of human reason which will not at the same time demonstrate the right to religious freedom....”
Thomas Paine had quite a lot to say about religion, most of it negative. In The Age of Reason he wrote, “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.”
Paine also realized that religion can be the perverter of scientific thought and of logical reasoning, saying “There is scarcely any part of science, or anything in nature, which those imposters and blasphemers of science, called priests, as well Christians as Jews, have not, at some time or other, perverted, or sought to pervert to the purpose of superstition and falsehood.”
Yes, I know, there are a multitude of pro-Christian Web sites that list dozens of quotations by various Founding Fathers that seem to support religion and, in particular, Christianity. And, although some of the founders were Christian, none of them had in mind creating a Christian nation when they wrote the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States. To claim otherwise is to lay insult at their feet, for their main goal was to create a nation free of religious entanglement.