Notes on the Founding Fathers and the Separation of Church and State

by
R.P. Nettelhorst


Introduction

Many well-meaning Christians argue that the United States was founded by Christian men on Christian principles. Although well-intentioned, such sentiment is unfounded. The men who lead the United States in its revolution against England, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and put together the Constitution were not Christians by any stretch of the imagination.

Why do some Christians imagine these men are Christians? Besides a desperate desire that it should be so, in a selective examination of their writings, one can discover positive statements about God and/or Christianity. However, merely believing in God does not make a person a Christian. The Bible says that "the fool says in his heart, there is no God." Our founding fathers were not fools. But the Bible also says "You say you believe in God. Good. The demons also believe and tremble."

Merely believing in God is insufficient evidence for demonstrating either Christian principles or that a person is a Christian.

Perhaps, to start, it might be beneficial to remind ourselves of what a Christian might be: it is a person who has acknowledged his or her sinfulness, responded in faith to the person of Jesus Christ as the only one who can redeem him, and by so doing been given the Holy Spirit.

The early church summarized the Christian message in six points:

1. Jesus came from God.
2. You killed him.
3. He rose again on the third day.
4. He sent the Holy Spirit
5. Repent and be baptized.
6. He's coming back.

An individual who would not acknowledge this much of the Christian message could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a Christian. The founding fathers of this country did not acknowledge this message. In fact, they denied it.

Founders of the American Revolution

Thomas Jefferson created his own version of the gospels; he was uncomfortable with any reference to miracles, so with two copies of the New Testament, he cut and pasted them together, excising all references to miracles, from turning water to wine, to the resurrection.

There has certainly never been a shortage of boldness in the history of biblical scholarship during the past two centuries, but for sheer audacity Thomas Jefferson's two redactions of the Gospels stand out even in that company. It is still a bit overwhelming to contemplate the sangfroid exhibited by the third president of the United States as, razor in hand, he sat editing the Gospels during February 1804, on (as he himself says) "2. or 3. nights only at Washington, after getting thro' the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day." He was apparently quite sure that he could tell what was genuine and what was not in the transmitted text of the New Testament...(Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson Bible; Jefferson and his Contemporaries, an afterward by Jaroslav Pelikan, Boston: Beacon Press, 1989, p. 149. Click to go to a copy of The Jefferson Bible).

In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson wrote:

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury to my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. (Dumas Malon, Jefferson The President: First Term 1801-1805. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1970, p. 191)

Thomas Paine was a pamphleteer whose manifestoes encouraged the faltering spirits of the country and aided materially in winning the War of Independence. But he was a Deist:

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. (Richard Emery Roberts, ed. "Excerpts from The Age of Reason". Selected Writings of Thomas Paine. New York: Everbody's Vacation Publishing Co., 1945, p. 362)

Regarding the New Testament, he wrote that:

I hold [it] to be fabulous and have shown [it] to be false...(Roberts, p. 375)

About the afterlife, he wrote:

I do not believe because a man and a woman make a child that it imposes on the Creator the unavoidable obligation of keeping the being so made in eternal existance hereafter. It is in His power to do so, or not to do so, and it is not in my power to decide which He will do. (Roberts, p. 375)

John Adams, the second U.S. President rejected the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and became a Unitarian. It was during Adams' presidency that the Senate ratified the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Tripoli, which states in Article XI that:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion - as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, - and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arrising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. (Charles I. Bevans, ed. Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America 1776-1949. Vol. 11: Philippines-United Arab Republic. Washington D.C.: Department of State Publications, 1974, p. 1072).

This treaty with the Islamic state of Tripoli had been written and concluded by Joel Barlow during Washington's Administration. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on June 7, 1797; President Adams signed it on June 10, 1797 and it was first published in the Session Laws of the Fifth Congress, first session in 1797. Quite clearly, then, at this very early stage of the American Republic, the U.S. government did not consider the United States a Christian nation.

Benjamin Franklin, the delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. He has frequently been used as a source for positive "God" talk. It is often noted that Franklin made a motion at the Constitutional convention that they should bring in a clergyman to pray for their deliberations:

In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when present to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings?....I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth - that God governs in the affairs of men. (Catherine Drinker Bowen. Miracle at Phaladelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1966, pp. 125-126)

It is rarely noted that Franklin presented his motion after "four or five weeks" of deliberation, during which they had never once opened in prayer. More significantly, it is never mentioned that Franklin's motion was voted down! Fine Christians, these founding fathers. Furthermore, the context is usually ignored, too. He made the motion during an especially trying week of serious disagreement, when the convention was in danger of breaking up. Cathrine Drinker Bowen comments:

Yet whether the Doctor had spoken from policy or from faith, his suggestion had been salutary, calling an assembly of doubting minds to a realization that destiny herself sat as guest and witness in this room. Franklin had made solemn reminder that a republic of thirteen united states - venture novel and daring - could not be achieved without mutual sacrifice and a summoning up of men's best, most difficult and most creative efforts. (Bowen, p. 127)

About March 1, 1790, he wrote the following in a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, who had asked him his views on religion. His answer would indicate that he remained a Deist, not a Christian, to the end:

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho' it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble...." (Carl Van Doren. Benjamin Franklin. New York: The Viking Press, 1938, p. 777.)

He died a little over a month later on April 17.

Deism

Certainly it is generally the case that these people believed in God, but it was not the God of Christianity. Deism began in the eighteenth century and was very popular in America. According to the dictionary, it was "a system of thought advocating natural religion based on human reason rather than revelation." Jefferson wrote that the religious doctrines of Jesus that he accepted, and which he regarded as consistent with his deistic perspective were three:

1. that there is one God, and he all-perfect:

2. that there is a future state of rewards and punishments

3. that to love God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.

Why do Christians want the founding fathers to be Christians?

Is it because they wish the best for these people?

Hardly.

It is because they hope that by demonstrating they were Christians, they can justify their political agenda. Rather than wanting something new (the injection of Christianity into government) they seek to restore something they imagine has been lost.

Reality: nothing has been lost. It wasn't there to start with. Therefore the whole concept of "taking back America" is a lie. America was never Christian.

Recent Misinformation on the Concept of Separation of Church and State

Some Christians are currently arguing that the concept of separating church and state was not in the minds of the founding fathers, and that it is a recent and pernicious doctrine that is the result of Supreme Court decisions in the 1950's and 60s.

This simply isn't true.

Separation of church and state is not something the Supreme Court invented in the 1950's and 60's. The phrase itself appears in a letter from President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, on Jan 1, 1802.

The Baptist Association had written to President Jefferson regarding a "rumor that a particular denomination was soon to be recognized as the national denomination." Jefferson responded to calm their fears by assuring them that the federal government would not establish any single denomination of Christianity as the National denomination. He wrote: "The First Amendment has erected a wall of separation between Church and State."

Notice the phrasing in the U.S. Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. (emphasis added)

The concept of the separation of church and state appears in the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message (a revision of an earlier statement where it also appears) adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power. (emphasis added).

Look at what Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, had to say about religious freedom in the 17th century. He was a Baptist persecuted for his faith who argued for the separation of church and state nearly a hundred fifty years before Jefferson.

The Church and State need not be, Williams insisted, inextricably linked: 'A Pagan or Antichristian Pilot may be as skillful to carry the Ship to its desired Port, as any Christian Mariner or Pilot in the World, and may perform that work with as much safety and speed.' 'God requireth not an Uniformity of Religion to be inacted and inforced in any Civill State,' he declared. Rather, the tares in the field of Christian grain must be left alone; let man hold whatever religious opinions he chooses provided he does not 'actually disturb civil peace,' ran a provision of the Rhode Island Charter of 1663; let civil government be based on the consent of the governed. 'The Soveraigne, originall, and foundation of civil power lies in the People,' Williams insisted. They 'may erect and establish what forme of Government seemes to them most meete for their Civill condition.'
William's plea for Separation of Church and State stemmed far less, Harold Laski writes, from tender concern for men's consciences than from 'a fear that their unity meant the government of the Church by civil men and thus a threat to its purity.' Popular control of the Church through elected magistrates Williams thought evil since it gave the Church 'to Satan himself, by whom all peoples natural are guided.' The precise intention of Scripture could not be ascertained, he believed, with the icy certainty claimed by the New England clergy. He wanted Church and State separated so the Church would not be corrupted by the State. Thomas Jefferson entertained the opposite conviction, fearing that the State would become contaminated by the Church. (Alpheus Thomas Mason. Free Government in the Making: Readings in American Political Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 55)

In his tract on the topic of religious toleration Williams madesome important points:

...Fourthly. The doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience, is proved guilty of all the blood of the souls crying for vengeance under the altar.
Fifthly. All civil states, with their officers of justice, in their respective constitutions and administrations, are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual, or Christian, state and worship.
Sixthly. It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries: and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only, in soul matters, able to conquer: to wit, the sword of God's Spirit, the word of God.
Seventhly. The state of the land of Israel, the kings and people thereof, in peace and war, is proved figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern nor precedent for any kingdom or civil state in the world to follow.
Eighthly. God requireth not an uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity, sooner or later, is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.
Ninthly. In holding an enforced uniformity of religion in a civil state, we must necessarily disclaim our desires and hopes of the Jews' conversion to Christ.
Tenthly. An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.
Eleventhly. The permission of other consciences and worships than a state professeth, only can, according to God, procure a firm and lasting peace; good assurance being taken, according to the wisdom of the civil state, for uniformity of civil obedience from all sorts.
Twelfthly. Lastly, true civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or kingdom, notwithstanding the permission of divers and contrary consciences, either of Jew or Gentile... (Roger Williams. The Bloudy Teneent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience Discussed, 1644. excerpted from A.T. Mason. Free Government in the Making. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 64)

Notice what Ulysses S. Grant said in his seventh annual address (State of the Union address) to the Congress, December 7, 1875:

As this will be the last annual message which I shall have the honor of transmitting to Congress before my successor is chosen, I will repeat or recapitulate the questions which I deem of vital importance which may be legislated upon and settled at this session:
First. That the States shall be required to afford the opportunity of a good common-school education to every child within their limits.
Second. No sectarian tenets shall ever be taught in any school supported in whole or in part by the State, nation, or by the proceeds of any tax levied upon any community. Make education compulsory so far as to deprive all persons who can not read and write from becoming voters after the year 1890, disfranchising none, however, on grounds of illiteracy who may be voters at the time this amendment takes effect.
Third. Declare church and state forever separate and distinct, but each free within their proper spheres; and that all church property shall bear its own proportion of taxation (emphasis added). (A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents. Vol. X. New York: Bureau of National Literature, Inc., 1897, p. 4310)

Here is a quotation from the Encyclopedic Index of A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, published in 1917:

Religious Freedom. - The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (q.v.) requires that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Religious freedom doubtless had its greatest inspiration from James Madison while he was in the Virginia Legislature. An attempt was made to levy a tax upon the people of that state "for the support of teachers of the Christian religion." Madison wrote what he called a "Memorial and Remonstrance," in which he appealed to the people against the evil tendency of such a precedent, and which convinced people that Madison was right. A bill was passed providing "that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever * * * nor shall suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and, by argument, maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." The religious test to which many of the states put their office-holders were gradually abandoned, and the final separation of church and state in America came in 1833, when Massachusetts discontinued the custom of paying preachers (emphasis added).(A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, Vol. XX. New York: Bureau of National Literature, Inc., 1917).

It should be clear, from these quotations, that the concept of separating church and state is hardly of recent invention in the United States, since we see it as far back as at least 1644. It cannot seriously be argued that it sprang as a result of weird ideas in the 1950's and 60's. In point of fact, the decisions rendered by the Supreme Court at that time on school prayer are entirely consistent with the general thrust of U.S. history.

If this is a "Christian" nation, then why did Jefferson write what he did to a group of Baptists? Shouldn't he instead of said that they had something to worry about? If the concept of separating church and state were a recent idea, then why did Jefferson himself use it, one of the founding fathers and author of the Declaration of Independence?

I think it is a big surprise to the Jewish people who have been living here for longer than my ancestors (who only got here in the middle of the 19th century) to think that this is a "Christian" nation. If it were "Christian" then there would be religious requirements to be a part of it and to participate in the public arena. If this were a Christian nation, then why are so few Americans Christians? Even the most optimistic Gallup pole shows that barely 1/3 of the U.S. population claims to be "born again". Interestingly, that's up considerably since the time of the nation's founding, when barely ten percent, if that, claimed intense religious affiliation.

I believe that those who talk about "restoring" prayer to the public school have a misunderstanding of the Supreme Court ruling and have failed to carefully think through their position. The Supreme Court decided in 1962 that for the school administrators to write prayers and read them over the intercoms to the students was wrong. It is hard for me to figure out how anyone in their right mind would think it's a good idea for the state to compose prayers and force them on people.

So why would you want to "restore" government sponsored religiosity? Students and faculty and other employees are free to pray for themselves if they want; that has never been a problem (admittedly, some examples of overzealous administrators who didn't understand the issue, who tried to stop individuals from exercising their religious beliefs, can doubtless be found; but that is the exception, not the rule. That there are murderers is not proof that murder is legal.).

As a Baptist, I frankly would be bothered by a Moslem or a Hindu writing a prayer for my child. I no more want them imposing their religious views on me and mine than they would want me to impose my Baptist beliefs on them. And what about the agnostics and atheists? They no more wish to be inundated by religious concepts in school than I would like to have my children inundated by their beliefs (or lack thereof).

The attempt in the public arena is toward neutrality; certainly it is a tough ideal to reach, and certainly there are a lot of mistakes made on all sides. Certainly, too, in the past there has been a lot of inconsistency in these ideals. But the ideal remains nevertheless.

The history of the U.S. has been one of lofty ideals rarely achieved; our shame is that we so rarely reach what we proclaim: freedom, equality, and the like. But our pride is that, unlike so many before, at least we have ideals and we're trying, how often unsuccessfully, by fits and starts, to reach them. Most of the political disagreements between the parties is not so much over the goals (both Democrats and Republicans want a free, prosperous, safe and happy society), but over the methods to reach those goals. Demonizing the opposition is not reasonable, and both parties are guilty of this (Democrats tend to turn Republicans into Fascists and Republicans tend to turn Democrats into Communists; neither caricature is accurate, appropriate or dignified).

The American Revolution, at its Foundation, was Unscriptural

At its foundation, our American revolution was unscriptural. Therefore I have a hard time seeing how our government could have been founded on Christian principles, when its very founding violated one:

Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. (1 Peter 2:13-14)

No matter how you cut it, the founding fathers were revolting against the King of England. It should be remembered that Peter wrote these words while Israel was suffering under the domination of government far more oppressive than England ever was. In fact, compared to current taxes, our forefathers had nothing to complain about.

What Peter wrote seems perfectly clear and unambiguous; furthermore, it is consistent with what Jesus said about his kingdom not being a part of this world (John 18:23 and 36).

As a Christian, it would be very difficult to justify armed revolt against any ruler. Passive resistance to injustice and evil, as embodied in the concept of civil disobedience, however, does have Scriptural precedent (as for instance in the case of the early Christians described in Acts 5:28-29:

"We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name," he said. "Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood."

Peter and the other apostles replied: "We must obey God rather than men!" (see also Acts 4:18-20)

Civil disobedience means obeying a higher, moral law, but willingly suffering the consequences of your actions and submitting to the authority of those in power to arrest or even kill you for your disobedience. Peter and the others were arrested, and many of them were ultimately martyred. But they never participated in violent protest, nor did they resist those in authority by violence.

Conclusion

Certainly many of the early immigrants to the New World came for religious reasons - often to escape persecution. However, they were not interested in religious freedom for anyone other than themselves, and often turned around and persecuted others who had slightly different viewpoints.

As Pastor Richard T. Zuelch pointed out in his letter to the Los Angeles Times on August 14, 1995:

Gordon S. Wood, in his 1992 book, "The Radicalism of the American Revolution," states that, by the 1790's only about 10% of the American population regularly attended religious services - to quote just one statistic. Not exactly an indication of a wholehearted national commitment to Christianity!
It is a matter of simple historical fact that the United States was not founded as, nor was it ever intended to be, a Christian nation. That there were strong, long-lasting Christian influences involved in the nation's earliest history, due to the Puritan settlements and those of other religious persons escaping European persecution, cannot be denied. But that is a long way from saying that colonial leaders, by the time of the outbreak of the Revolution, were intending to form a nation founded on specifically Christian principles and doctrine.
We Christians do ourselves no favor by bending history to suit our prejudices or to accommodate wishful thinking. Rather than continue to cling to a "Moral Majority"-style fantasy that says America is a Christian nation that needs to be "taken back" from secular unbelief (we can't "take back" what we never had), it would be much healthier for us Christians to face reality, holding to what Jesus himself said in the Gospels: that Christians should never be surprised at the hostility with which the gospel would be greeted by the world, because most people would fail to believe in him, thereby strongly implying that, in every age and country, Christianity would always be a minority faith. (Rev. Richard T. Zuelch, Letter to the Editor, Los Angeles Times, August 1995)

The United States is not, by any stretch of the imagination a Christian nation today, nor has it ever been, nor was it ever intended to be. The Religious right (or left) would do well to stop looking for the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth.


For additional information, check out:

Critique of David Barton's "America's Godly Heritage"

Notes on the Separation of Church and State