Our Godless Constitution
The faith of our founding fathers
definitely wasn't christianity.
by Brooke Allen
The Nation magazine, February
It is hard to believe that George Bush
has ever read the works of George Orwell, but he seems, somehow,
to have grasped a few Orwellian precepts. The lesson the President
has learned the best-and certainly the one that has been the most
useful to him-is the axiom that if you repeat a lie often enough,
people will believe it. One of his Administration's current favorites
is the whopper about America having been founded on Christian
principles. Our nation was founded not on Christian principles
but on Enlightenment ones. God only entered the picture as a very
minor player, and Jesus Christ was conspicuously absent.
Our Constitution makes no mention whatever
of God. The omission was too obvious to have been anything but
deliberate, in spite of Alexander Hamilton's flippant responses
when asked about it: According to one account, he said that the
new nation was not in need of "foreign aid"; according
to another, he simply said "we forgot." But as Hamilton's
biographer Ron Chernow points out, Hamilton never forgot anything
In the eighty-five essays that make up
The Federalist, God is mentioned only twice (both times by Madison,
who uses the word, as Gore Vidal has remarked, in the "only
Heaven knows" sense). In the Declaration of Independence,
He gets two brief nods: a reference to "the Laws of Nature
and Nature's God," and the famous line about men being "endowed
by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." More blatant
official references to a deity date from long after the founding
period: "In God We Trust" did not appear on our coinage
until the Civil War, and "under God" was introduced
into the Pledge of Allegiance during the McCarthy hysteria in
1954 [see Elisabeth Sifton, "The Battle Over the Pledge,"
April 5, 2004]. In 1797 our government concluded a "Treaty
of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and
the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli, or Barbary" now known simply
as the Treaty of Tripoli. Article 11 of the treaty contains these
As the Government of the United States...
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 arising from religious
opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing
between the two countries.
This document was endorsed by Secretary
of State Timothy Pickering and President John Adams. It was then
sent to the Senate for ratification; the vote was unanimous. It
is worth pointing out that although this was the 339th time a
recorded vote had been required by the Senate, it was only the
third unanimous vote in the Senate's history. There is no record
of debate or dissent. The text of the treaty was printed in full
in the Philadelphia Gazette and in two New York papers, but there
were no screams of outrage, as one might expect today.
The Founding Fathers were not religious
men, and they fought hard to erect, in Thomas Jefferson's words,
"a wall of separation between church and state." John
Adams opined that if they were not restrained by legal measures,
Puritans-the fundamentalists of their day-would "whip and
crop, and pillory and roast." The historical epoch had afforded
these men ample opportunity to observe the corruption to which
established priesthoods were liable, as well as "the impious
presumption of legislators and rulers," as Jefferson wrote,
"civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but
fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith
of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking
as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose
them on others, hath established and maintained false religions
over the greatest part of the world and through all time."
If we define a Christian as a person who
believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ, then it is safe to say
that some of the key Founding Fathers were not Christians at all.
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine were deists-that
is, they believed in one Supreme Being but rejected revelation
and all the supernatural elements of the Christian Church; the
word of the Creator, they believed, could best be read in Nature.
John Adams was a professed liberal Unitarian, but he, too, in
his private correspondence seems more deist than Christian.
George Washington and James Madison also
leaned toward deism, although neither took much interest in religious
matters. Madison believed that "religious bondage shackles
and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise."
He spoke of the "almost fifteen centuries" during which
Christianity had been on trial: "What have been its fruits?
More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy,
ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry,
and persecution." If Washington mentioned the Almighty in
a public address, as he occasionally did, he was careful to refer
to Him not as "God" but with some nondenominational
moniker like "Great Author" or "Almighty Being."
It is interesting to note that the Father of our Country spoke
no words of a religious nature on his deathbed, although fully
aware that he was dying, and did not ask for a man of God to be
present; his last act was to take his own pulse, the consummate
gesture of a creature of the age of scientific rationalism.
Tom Paine, a polemicist rather than a
politician, could afford to be perfectly honest about his religious
beliefs, which were baldly deist in the tradition of Voltaire:
"I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness
beyond this life .... 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." This is how
he opened The Age of Reason, his virulent attack on Christianity.
In it he railed against the "obscene stories, the voluptuous
debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting
vindictiveness" of the Old Testament, "a history of
wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind."
The New Testament is less brutalizing but more absurd, the story
of Christ's divine genesis a "fable, which for absurdity
and extravagance is not exceeded by any thing that is to be found
in the mythology of the ancients." He held the idea of the
Resurrection in especial ridicule: Indeed, "the wretched
contrivance with which this latter part is told, exceeds every
thing that went before it." Paine was careful to contrast
the tortuous twists of theology with the pure clarity of deism.
"The true deist has but one Deity; and his religion consists
in contemplating the power, wisdom, and benignity of the Deity
in his works, and in endeavoring to imitate him in every thing
moral, scientifical, and mechanical."
Paine's rhetoric was so fervent that he
was inevitably branded an atheist. Men like Franklin, Adams and
Jefferson could not risk being tarred with that brush, and in
fact Jefferson got into a good deal of trouble for continuing
his friendship with Paine and entertaining him at Monticello.
These statesmen had to be far more circumspect than the turbulent
Paine, yet if we examine their beliefs it is all but impossible
to see just how theirs differed from his.
Franklin was the oldest of the Founding
Fathers. He was also the most worldly and sophisticated, and was
well aware of the Machiavellian principle that if one aspires
to influence the masses, one must at least profess religious sentiments.
By his own definition he was a deist, although one French acquaintance
claimed that "our free-thinkers have adroitly sounded him
on his religion, and they maintain that they have discovered he
is one of their own, that is that he has none at all." If
he did have a religion, it was strictly utilitarian: As his biographer
Gordon Wood has said, "He praised religion for whatever moral
effects it had, but for little else." Divine revelation,
Franklin freely admitted, had "no weight with me' and the
covenant of grace seemed "unintelligible" and "not
beneficial." As for the pious hypocrites who have ever controlled
nations, "A man compounded of law and gospel is able to cheat
a whole country with his religion and then destroy them under
color of law"-a comment we should carefully consider at this
turning point in the history of our Republic.
Here is Franklin's considered summary
of his own beliefs, in response to a query by Ezra Stiles, the
president of Yale. He wrote it just six weeks before his death
at the age of 84.
"Here is my creed. I believe in
one God, Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his providence.
That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service
we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the
soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another
life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental
points in all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever
sect I meet with them."
As for Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of
whom you particularly desire, I think his 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 corrupting
changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England,
some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not
dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless
to busy myself with now, when! expect soon an opportunity of knowing
the truth with less trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being
believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as it probably
has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed,
especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss,
by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world
with any particular marks of his displeasure.
Jefferson thoroughly agreed with Franklin
on the corruptions the teachings of Jesus had undergone. "The
metaphysical abstractions of Athanasius, and the maniacal ravings
of Calvin, tinctured plentifully with the foggy dreams of Plato,
have so loaded [Christianity] with absurdities and incomprehensibilities"
that it was almost impossible to recapture "its native simplicity
and purity." Like Paine, Jefferson felt that the miracles
claimed by the New Testament put an intolerable strain on credulity.
"The day will come' he predicted (wrongly, so far), "when
the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his
father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable
of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." The
Revelation of St. John he dismissed as "the ravings of a
Jefferson edited his own version of the
New Testament, "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,"
in which he carefully deleted all the miraculous passages from
the works of the Evangelists. He intended it, he said, as "a
document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say,
a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus." This was clearly a
defense against his many enemies, who hoped to blacken his reputation
by comparing him with the vile atheist Paine. His biographer Joseph
Ellis is undoubtedly correct, though, in seeing disingenuousness
here: "If [Jefferson] had been completely scrupulous, he
would have described himself as a deist who admired the ethical
teachings of Jesus as a man rather than as the son of God. (In
modem-day parlance, he was a secular humanist.)" In short,
not a Christian at all.
The three accomplishments Jefferson was
proudest of-those that he requested be put on his tombstone-were
the founding of the University of Virginia and the authorship
of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for
Religious Freedom. The latter was a truly radical document that
would eventually influence the separation of church and state
in the US Constitution; when it was passed by the Virginia legislature
in 1786, Jefferson rejoiced that there was finally "freedom
for the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammeden,
the Hindu and infidel of every denomination"-note his respect,
still unusual today, for the sensibilities of the "infidel."
The University of Virginia was notable among early-American seats
of higher education in that it had no religious affiliation whatever.
Jefferson even banned the teaching of theology at the school.
If we were to speak of Jefferson in modem
political categories, we would have to admit that he was a pure
libertarian, in religious as in other matters. His real commitment
(or lack thereof) to the teachings of Jesus Christ is plain from
a famous throwaway comment he made: "It does me no injury
for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither
picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." This raised plenty of
hackles when it got about, and Jefferson had to go to some pains
to restore his reputation as a good Christian. But one can only
conclude, with Ellis, that he was no Christian at all.
John Adams, though no more religious than
Jefferson, had inherited the fatalistic mindset of the Puritan
culture in which he had grown up. He personally endorsed the Enlightenment
commitment to Reason but did not share Jefferson's optimism about
its future, writing to him, "I wish that Superstition in
Religion exciting Superstition in Polliticks... may never blow
up all your benevolent and phylanthropic Lucubrations," but
that "the History of all Ages is against you." As an
old man he observed, "Twenty times in the course of my late
reading have I been upon the point of breaking out, 'This would
be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion
in it!" Speaking ex Cathedra, as a relic of the founding
generation, he expressed his admiration for the Roman system whereby
every man could worship whom, what and how he pleased. When his
young listeners objected that this was paganism, Adams replied
that it was indeed, and laughed.
In their fascinating and eloquent valetudinarian
correspondence, Adams and Jefferson had a great deal to say about
religion. Pressed by Jefferson to define his personal creed, Adams
replied that it was "contained in four short words, 'Be just
and good." Jefferson replied, "The result of our fifty
or sixty years of religious reading, in the four words, 'Be just
and good,' is that in which all our inquiries must end; as the
riddles of all priesthoods end in four more, 'ubi panis, ibi deus.'
What all agree in, is probably right. What no two agree in, most
This was a clear reference to Voltaire's
Reflections on Religion.
As Voltaire put it:
"There are no sects in geometry.
One does not speak of a Euclidean, an Archimedean. When the truth
is evident, it is impossible for parties and factions to arise
.... Well, to what dogma do all minds agree? To the worship of
a God, and to honesty. All the philosophers of the world who have
had a religion have said in all ages: "There is a God, and
one must be just." There, then, is the universal religion
established in all ages and throughout mankind. The point in which
they all agree is therefore true, and the systems through which
they differ are therefore false."
Of course all these men knew, as all modem
presidential candidates know, that to admit to theological skepticism
is political suicide. During Jefferson's presidency a friend observed
him on his way to church, carrying a large prayer book. "You
going to church, Mr. J," remarked the friend. "You do
not believe a word in it." Jefferson didn't exactly deny
the charge. "Sir," he replied, "no nation has ever
yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The
Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to
man and I as chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give
it the sanction of my example. Good morning Sir." Like Jefferson,
every recent President has understood the necessity of at least
paying lip service to the piety of most
American voters. All of our leaders, Democrat
and Republican, have attended church, and have made very sure
they are seen to do so. But there is a difference between offering
this gesture of respect for majority beliefs and manipulating
and pandering to the bigotry, prejudice and millennial fantasies
of Christian extremists. Though for public consumption the Founding
Fathers identified themselves as Christians, they were, at least
by today's standards, remarkably honest about their misgivings
when it came to theological doctrine, and religion in general
came very low on the list of their concerns and priorities-always
excepting, that is, their determination to keep the new nation
free from bondage to its rule.
Brooke Allen is the author of two collections
of essays, Twentieth Century Attitudes and Artistic License: Three
Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior (Ivan R. Dee).
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