One of my pet peeves is when self proclaimed devout Christians and the politicians who pander to them claim that the U.S. is a Christian nation. They usually do not explain exactly what they mean by this claim or the basis for it. The effect and probably the intent is to exclude anyone who does not consider themselves to be Christian, i.e. agnostics, athiests, pagans, Mormons (well they consider themselves Christians but fundamentalists do not), Buddhists, Jews, Moslems, Hindus etc. from any claim that their beliefs have an equal status (or indeed any status at all) in our Constitutional Republic.
A far better case can be made that one reason our Republic was formed was to limit the power of various churches which purported to be Christian. Before the Revolution various Colonies which later became States had de jure or de facto established churches (Church of England or Anglican in Virginia, Catholic Church in Maryland etc). Indeed, nine of the thirteen colonies had established churches. In Colonial Massachusetts Catholics, Quakers and Baptists were banned from the colony under penalty of death. Interestingly, one reason for the First Admendment and similar measures adopted in most State constitutions in the eyes of many Christian leaders of the Revolutionary period was not only to stop such abuses and to protect independent religious belief but also to ensure that participation in government and other secular affairs did not contaminate the true mission and piety of the Church. (This can only make one wonder why many religious leaders of Revolutionary days seem to have been so much wiser than religious leaders of today).
Most disconcerting is the claim that the Founding Fathers were Christians (which presumably is used as evidence that they intended the Republic to be Christian) when the overwhelming evidence is that only John Adams, John Jay, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry and perhaps Alexander Hamilton and George Mason could fairly be considered to be Christian and several of the Founding Fathers were dismissive or even openly disdainful of Christian belief even though most had some formal connection to the Church of England (later Episcopal Church) or other Protestant Church.
The most important of the Founding Fathers were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, James Monroe, George Mason and Thomas Paine. Note: Paine is sometimes omitted from the list of Founding Fathers, even though arguably he was the most important and influential of them all, in part because he was not born in an American colony which later became a State (neither was Alexander Hamilton) but mostly because of his vehement atheism and ridicule of Christians.
I have briefly described the evidence of the religious convictions each of these “Founding Fathers” below and my admittedly presumptuous assessment on their vote on the issue of whether this is a Christian nation. (My judgment is final and no quibling is permitted).
George Washington: the Father of our country, attended church irregularly and rarely if ever for religious reasons. He also rarely if ever referred to Jesus. Prior to the Revolution important legal maters, including deeds to real estate, were maintained and controled in Virginia at the local Church of England facilities with Washington attending to protect his financial, social and other secular interests. When he attended Church services Washington (along with his family) routinely would leave before Holy Communion and was admonished by local ministers on at least four occasions that he was a bad example for others. Typically he never returned to the Church where he was so reprimanded. Washington was a Mason (some theorize that he was the national leader of the Scotish rite of Masons but certainly he was high in the Masonic leadership hierarchy). The Freemasons of his day were known to be opposed to organized Christian churches and indeed membership in the Masonic Orders was prohibited by many Protestant churches as well as by the Catholic Church (under pain of excommunication). Indeed in Washington’s time it was widely assumed that Deism was an integral part of Masonry and even today, despite protestations by Masons that Masonry is not a religion and that followers of all religions who acknowledge a Creator are welcome as members, the suspicion lingers that Deist philosophy forms the core of Masonic belief, practice and purpose at least at the highest leadership levels of the Masonic Orders (others speculate that the Gnostic heresy is the fountain of Freemason principals or perhaps some unique combination of Deist and Gnostic theology). As required to be a Mason, presumably Washington did accept the idea of a Creator and in his writings he typically referred to the deity in Masonic terms as “the Great Architect,” a term also common among Deists. There have been numerous attempts to rewrite history (much as other stories were created about him such as the hatchet and apple tree tale) by portraying Washingon as devout but these attempts, mainly by religious leaders of the 19th century, do not reflect Washington’s own writings and what people believed about him during his lifetime i.e that Washington was a Deist, someone who believes in a Creator who after the Creation plays no further direct role in human affairs but perhaps is observing with some curiosity to see how things turn out. Deists rejected the concept of devine revelation whether through holy texts (such as the Bible) or through prayer and insisted that human affairs and morality, both public and private, should be governed solely by reason. Today most Deists would be called humanists. His vote: not a Christian nation.
Thomas Jefferson: Clearly Jefferson was either a Deist or an agnostic (during his time these terms often were considered to be all but indistinguishable) with many perhaps incorrectly considering him to be an atheist. Both in his youth and in his retirement years he rewrote the New Testament ( the so called “Jefferson Bible”) to remove all aspects he considered rank supersition, leaving only what he considered to be the true message of Jesus. Accordingly, he removed from his version of the New Testament the Virgin birth, all miracles allegedly performed by Jesus, and the Resurrection as well as any promise of an after life. Jefferson believed in the moral teachings of Jesus but not in his devinity and therefore was not a Christian as defined by fundamentalists (or indeed as defined by virtually all mainstream Christian religions). The Declaration of Independence which he wrote refers to “Nature and Nature’s God,” a common expression of Deists of his time. Like Washington he was considered to be a Deist by his contemporaries. (Hamilton considered him to be an atheist). Jefferson famously wrote in 1802 that the First Admendment to the Constitution creates “A wall of separation between Religion and State,” a phrase not original to him but common in the writings of Deists of his time. He also often noted with approval that the Constitution specificaly states that there can be no religious test for federal office and publically opposed violations of this provision.. Along with Madison he successfully fought to stop state financial support of churches. His vote: not a Christian nation.
Thomas Paine, of course, was the author of “Common Sense,” an all time American best seller first published as a series of political treatises or phamplets which argued the justifications for the American Revolution. John Adams declared that Paine was as important as Washington in the founding of the Republic in that while Washington fought for the Revolution, Paine gave the philosophical rationale for that fight. Paine was a self proclaimed Deist. He also wrote the treatise “The Age of Reason” which criticized Christian belief and practice in stark, even insulting terms. This work also became a best seller in the United States and while it promoted Deist philosophy, many readers assumed he was an atheist, an assumption he never challenged. He spent most of the later years of his life in France in support of the French Revolution, unable to return to America because of threats made against him because of his total rejection of Christianity and the insults he directed at believers. He finally returned to America and died there largely ostercized by those he had been instrumental in freeing from the yoke of the British Crown . Only five persons attended his funeral in large measure because of his anti Christian proclaimations. His vehement vote: not a Christian nation
Benjamin Franklin: the original dirty old man, very popular in France (particularly with women) but believed in America to be a member of sex clubs and perhaps even Satanic cults (which were probably synonymous in the minds of contemporary Christians of his day). As evidenced by his own writings he also was a Deist although far less dogmatic about it than men such as Paine and willing to tolerate disparent views. He even moved to bring in a clergyman for a prayer when debate over the Constituion became angry and non productive (his motion was denied). Franklin was a close friend of the anti Christian writer Thomas Paine who he helped immigrate to the American Colonies in 1774. Prior to his death Franklin specifically questioned the devinity of Jesus and other basic elements of the Christian faith while praising the message of Jesus in secular terms, much as Jefferson did on many occasions. His vote: not a Christian nation.
Patrick Henry: one of the earliest and, along with Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine, among the most important supporters of Republicanism. Most often remembered for his (alleged) “give me liberty or give me death” speech (historical scholars differ as to whether he actually spoke these words ) he initially opposed the Constitution as giving up to much power to the Federal government and strongly supported the Bill of Rights as a necessary addition to the Constitution. He supported States rights but opposed the concept of nulification of federal laws by states . In his later years he expressed concern that anarchy might overtake the American Republic because of rampant Deism and atheism as he perceived had occurred with the French Revolution. His vote: America is a Christian nation.
John Adams: Adams probably would have described himself as a Christian although clearly he was influenced by Deist philosophy. Whether he would meet the strict definition of Christian of some fundamentalists (requiring rebirth etc) I will leave for others to debate. The very first treaty of the United States, the Treaty of Tripoli, (recall that the Constitution states that the supreme law of the land is the Constitution and Treaties) adopted and apparently supported by Adams since his Administration submitted it to the Senate for ratification and which, in his capacity as President, Adams signed stated that the “Government of the United States is in no way founded on the Christian religion”.* He also strongly supported the Constitutional provision that there could be no religious test for Federal office. (historical note: there are no major statues or memorials to Adams in the nation’s capital despite his extreme importance as a key Founding Father and second President. Many historical scholars believe this is because “Jeffersonians” aka Democratic-Republicans regarded him as a traitor to the Revolution because of the passage and enforcement of the “Alien and Sedition Acts” during his term as President with many Jeffersonians being imprisoned and some dying while incarcerated because of their criticism of his Administration. Recent attempts to rehabilitate his reputation because of his importance to the establishment of the Republic appear to have been largely successful. He and Jefferson reconciled after their retirements although residual bitterness apparently continued with Adams final words , “Jefferson lives,” illustrating his mistaken belief and considerable dismay that his long time political enemy had survived him. Actually Jefferson predeceased Adams by a matter of hours, both dying on the same day, ironically on July 4.) His vote: although a Christian himself, based on the “Musselman” treaty and other positions he took during his lifetime, not a Christian nation.
*it should be noted that certain Christian “scholars” argue that this provision was not contained in the Arabic version of the treaty based on a purported copy discovered in the early 20th century but there is no dispute whatever that the English version approved by the Senate and signed by Adams contained this provision so their point is irrelavent and nonsensical as well as in all probability factually in error.
James Madison : the “Father of the Constitution” and primary writer of the Bill of Rights was a Deist. Although educated by Prebsyterian ministers he was an avid reader of Deist papers and arguments. He was heavily influenced by his close friend Thomas Jefferson. An examination of his writings after adulthood shows no mention of religion or Christianity whatever. He refused to enter any Church of England sanctuary because of their history of discrimination against other religions (primarily against Baptists). His vote: not a Christian nation.
George Mason: sometimes called the “Co-father of the Constitution” Probably no one except Madison was more influential in shaping the new Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights with emphasis on the First Amendment. Although presumably a Christian, there is no evidence that religious belief played any significant role in his life until his final hours. Indeed, his earliest public efforts were directed at containing and reducing the influence of the Anglican Church in Virginia. He fought against the established Church in Virginia, at one point introducing a bill to the Virginia Assembly which ended the long established policy of forcing dissenters to pay contributions to the established (Anglican) Church, saying in part that “… religion or the duty owed to our Creator and the manner of discharging it can only be directed by reason and conscience and no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established.” (this statement emphasizing reason reflects a strong Deist influence on his philiosophy but it cannot be stated with certainty that he was a Deist). He was committed to religious liberty and fought to ensure that no religion would be established by the new Republic. He refused to sign the Constitution in its original form because it did not contain a Bill of Rights prohibiting an established church and safeguarding other individual rights. His vote: not a Christian nation (This view also accords with family traditiion, the writer of this essay being a decendant of his second wife).
Alexander Hamilton: First Secretary of the Treasury and strong Federalist (believing in a strong central government), his religious views as an adult are something of an enigma. The son of a prostitute by some accounts (although during this period any divorced woman was likely to be so labeled), he was clearly devout as a boy. As an adult, in response to what he considered to be the atheism of Jefferson and Monroe (he believed both were “contaminated” with disbelief while consorting with revolutionaries in France), he proposed chaplins for each regiment during the Revolution. His wife was devout and rented a pew at their Church for many years and he frequently attended services with her. Hamilton in his later years clearly believed in some form of after life but always spoke of Heaven and Devine Providence, never of Jesus or God. In a loose definition of Christian he probably would qualify but it is doubtful he would meet the strict definition of a fundamentalist. His vote: a somewhat uncertain yes. He probably would be supportive of the idea of the Republic as a Christian nation if not in fact at least as being desirable. (He certainly would vote yes if his wife would learn of his vote but I am presuming a secret ballot).
John Jay: President of the Continental Congress and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Jay is probably the only one of the major founding fathers who would agree with the Christian fundamentalists of today. He was a devout Christian who believed that good government was based on a belief in and submission to God. He opposed allowing Roman Catholics to hold political office so we may presume his definition of Christian was limited to the main line Protestant faiths. His vote: vehemently yes, a Christian nation.
Samuel Adams, a cousin of John Adams, was called by Jefferson “the Father of the Revolution.” He also was sometimes called the last Puritan and was a participating member of the Congregationalist Church as an adult. A true rabble rouser and revolutionary (and a primary instigator of the original tea party) he despised the British Crown and royalty in general and urged the creation of a Republic long before such radical ideas had any popular support. He also supported the concept of God as the source of human rights. He would doubtlessly endorse the idea of America being a Christian nation. However, like John Jay, this belief would not extend to Catholics who he also despised and considered a threat to the very idea of liberty and to the survivial of the fledging Republic.
James Monroe: The fifth President of the U.S. and last of the Founding Fathers to become President was a Deist. His mentor and friend was Thomas Jefferson. Although formally a member of the Church of England (later Episcopal Church), there are no written records or letters whatever either by Monroe or his friends concerning his religion and he apparantly never took Communion. He studied law at the College of William & Mary, a hotbed of Deist thought and activity (disclosure: the author of this essay also attended the law school at the College of William & Mary but, despite the suggestions of his children, was not a contemporary of Monroe). When his infant son died he wrote an emotional letter related to the death but with no mention whatever of religion. Although Hamilton was convinced that he was an atheist corrupted to such non-belief by the influence of Jefferson and the French Revolution, one statement Monroe made could be interpreted as suggesting he believed in an interactive God; however, clearly religion played no role whatever in his life. He was a close friend of Thomas Paine and indeed Paine resided in his household (and borrowed a Bible from him as source material) while he wrote the inflamatory anti Christian treatise “The Age of Reason.” (There is some evidence, however, that Monroe was either antisemetic or at least willing to discriminate against Jews in certain situations. While Secretary of State, he dismissed Mordacai Noah as counsel to Tunis because he was a Jew. Jefferson, Adams and Madison wrote letters to him protesting this dismissal on the grounds it violated the Constitutional separation of Church and State and the specific Constitutional provisions prohibitting a religious test for federal office).(historical note:like Jefferson and John Adams, Monroe also died on July 4). His vote: not a Christian nation.
Final tally of votes:
Eight of the Founding Fathers “vote” that America is not a Christian Nation
Four of Founding Fathers “vote” yes, it is a Christian nation