Our Founding Fathers and Religion

Somebody please help! Is it true that this country was founded on Christianity since our Founding Fathers were Christians? Many of my friends believe Christianity is THE religion of this country and that the Ten Commandments should be posted in places such as schools, courtrooms, and public buildings. I don’t have much knowledge in this area and looking for some help in clarifying this questions!

First of all, Don Smith, welcome to the SDMB!! :slight_smile:

As for the FF (no, not the Fantasic Four):

Yes, most of them were Christians. However, there are some arguments that mitigate against this being a “Christian Nation” based on the FF.

  1. Many of them were Christian in name only. Jefferson and Washington, for example, doubted the divinity of Jesus. They were not regular church goers.

  2. They did, after all, put into the Bill of Rights that little bit about Congress passing no law regarding the establishment of religion.

That being said, though, I doubt the FF ever thought that the concept of seperation between church and state would approach the complexity that it has today. I don’t think they would have favored banning the TC from schoolrooms or anything else like that.

Zev Steinhardt

Here is Jefferson’s letter endorsing a “wall of separation” between church and state.

You might also want to read through Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia. Much of the wording is geared toward preventing dissemination of religious doctrine by the government. For example:

Jefferson was so proud of this document that he asked that his authorship of it be noted on his tombstone.

Here are some more of Jefferson’s words which may help you to understand his views. Of particular not with respect to your original question:

I don’t recall off the top of my head anything the FF’s may have said about the public display of the Ten Commandments, but I do know that several early Founding Fathers/Presidents–Jefferson and Madison, IIRC–doubted the propriety of issuing proclamations for national days of thanksgiving or prayer on church-state grounds. (I believe they may have been somewhat inconsistent on the whole days of thanksgiving, thing, though.) Of course, I’d have to say that even if one of the FF’s did think it was okay to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings, he’d be wrong. If the state publicly proclaiming to its citizens what god they should worship, how they should worship him, and when they should worship him doesn’t constitute some sort of establishment of religion, then I dunno what does.

Here are some words on the subject from James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution”:

(Emphasis mine.)

Here are some more of Madison’s views on the subject.

The World Union of Deists site supply copies of or links to many of the FF’s personal letters, biographies, etc., supporting the notion that many were not “good Christians.” Notable among them:

George Washington signed the Treaty of Tripoli which stated unconditionally that the USA was NOT founded on Christianity and was in no way a Christian nation.

Thomas Paine wrote “The Age of Reason” which railed against “revealed” religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) and asserted that the Word of God is found in nature and science, not a book written by fallible men.

Jefferson, of course, wrote to the Danbury Baptists stating that a man’s worship is between him and his God and coined the phrase “separation of church and state.” He also wrote “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” AKA “The Jefferson Bible,” in which he cut and pasted that New Testament to do away with all miracle and claims to godhood.

And there is much more.

The thing to remember is the FF were coming from a time and place where you could go to jail for going to the wrong church, for voicing an opinion that differed with the state church, or for pointing out that the ruler himself didn’t go to the state church. And a verse in Romans asserts that rebelling against the government is wrong because all authority comes from God, so that was right out with the FF. They didn’t want the government to tell anyone anything about how to worship, nor did they want the church to tell the government how to govern, and they didn’t want any leader claiming they were there by Divine right.

That’s the way I understand it, anyway.


I would be careful about using that as a cite. It is, many think, an urban legend of sorts.

From http://www.infidels.org/news/atheism/arguments.html#usanot, we see that “It was recently discovered that the US copy of the Arabic version of the treaty not only lacks the quotation, it lacks Article XI altogether,” and that “The person who translated the Arabic to English was Joel Barlow, Consul General at Algiers, a close friend of Thomas Paine – and an opponent of Christianity. It is possible that Barlow made up Article XI, but since there is no Arabic version of that article to be found, it’s hard to say.”

Now, the site does say this is “unlkikely,” but I would still stay on firmer ground than this when discussing the issue. To be sure, there is a wealth of firm ground on this one…

Yer pal,

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David B used me as a cite!*

To quote myself from an earlier thread:

“Well, no. If the question is, “What was the attitude of the U.S. Senate at that time regarding the statement ‘The United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion’?”, then the Arabic text doesn’t really matter. (It’s not clear if the anti-“Christian Nation” text was omitted in the original Arabic treaty or if it got removed later–I believe no one noticed it wasn’t in the Arabic text until the 1930’s.) The passage was in the English text, which is what the U.S. Senate unanimously ratified. Furthermore, the whole treaty was reprinted in newspapers–treaties were a lot shorter back in those days, and newspapers probably a good bit duller–yet the U.S. Senate wasn’t lynched for its wickedness. (Note also that the entire treaty was only a few pages long, so this isn’t something the godless Joel Barlow slipped into Paragraph 8, Section 34, Appendix J, on page 1194 of the treaty, and none of the staffers of the Senate Sub-Committee on North African Affairs happened to notice until it was too late.) It is true that subsequent treaties with assorted Barbary States didn’t contain that language, and it was probably a pretty lousy treaty anyway–we basically agreed to pay the bastards off, and (surprise, surprise) they kept on seizing our ships anyway. Obviously, the treaty is not legally in force today or anything like that. However, it shows that both the Powers That Were and the People in 1797 weren’t too shocked by the idea that the U.S. is not “founded on Christianity”. Since this is only a few years after the adoption of the Constitution, it may therefore shed some light on original intent, and help dispel the notion that the Founding Fathers were all deeply devout Fundamentalist Protestants who meant to establish a theocracy, but just forgot to put it in the Constitution anywhere.”

Jeez–how many times am I gonna have to post this, anyway?

By and large, the founding fathers were deists.

I recommend “The Myth of Christian America” by Noll, Hatch and Marsden. It’s a debunking of the whole idea that Amereica was founded for Christians by Christians. The irony is that the authors are all evangelical Christians themselves (and respected scholars.)

By the way, Gr8Kat, it wasn’t George Washington who signed the treaty, it was John Adams. (I believe the treaty was negotiated during the Washington administration.)

“[When] the [Virginia] bill for establishing religious freedom… was finally passed,… a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.” --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:67

Zev said:

I’m sure you’re right.

Of course, the same thing could also be said about pretty much everything in government. For example, do you think they would have written the 2nd Amendment in such a confusing fashion if they realized it would lead to the problems we’ve had interpeting it?

They had no way of seeing into the future and knowing what their new country would turn into. So we have to base what we do today on what they did lo those many years ago, and try to stick to it the best we can.

Satan and ME, thanks for setting me straight; I apologize for my hasty post.

I got that info from http://www.deism.com/thinksam18.htm which I still think contains some thought provoking information, but I’ll try to be more careful about accepting it all unquestioningly.

Benjamin Franklin was a deist. believed in existence of God but that God started the universe and went about his business. Franklin was regarded as an atheist by some of his contemporaries. other FFs were involved in the freemasons. this country is culturally christian but in principle NOT. the result is contradictory and schizoid. on another website i read someone claiming to be a minister attack the FFs and the science of psychology.

Teddy Roosevelt called Thomas Paine a “filthy little atheist.” check the book:


Dal Timgar

For the record, and not intending to imply anything from it, it’s been my understanding that George Washington was a sincere Anglican, less than an every-Sunday worshipper but active, sitting on the parish vestry in his area and so on. He was an intensely private man as regards his personal life and beliefs, but a moderate-conservative Christian group abstracted some of what he had to say on the subject from a few letters and other ‘private’ writings and it does bear that out. He was a man of his day, able to function well among all segments of the population, somewhat haughty and giving the impression of conceit, but a born leader.

However, and this is a very strong point, historically there had been a cuius regio, eius religio standard where an enforced official religion was the only “proper” belief for any country – the Reformation simply meaning that the King – not the people – had a choice. It was against this attitude, which had been enforced in many of the colonies (from Puritan Massachusetts to strongly Anglican Virginia) that the FF took the stance they did in the Declaration, Constitution, and the writings cited. We’re a “Christian nation” in the same sense that we’re a “white nation” – the majority of the population is and has always been adherents to some degree to Christianity. To go beyond that to any official status would be to go completely contrary to the attitudes of the FF, evidently unanimously regardless of personal belief, that religious freedom was a precious and inalienable right.

Let me end this with an apocryphal story, an urban legend, told about Mario Cuomo, the liberal Democrat and staunch Catholic former Governor of New York. The state legislature had determined to pass a law mandating school prayer in response to an activist citizens group, knowing it would likely be declared unconstitutional but showing themselves on the side of motherhood and apple pie. They expected Cuomo to oppose it, and perhaps veto it. However, he said that he was “all in favor of the proposed bill. In fact, once it passes, I will direct the Department of Education to institute a rotating schedule of prayers for use in the schools. I plan to have it start with the ‘Hail Mary.’” The bill did not pass.

One thing about this is even if we assume that we were founded by Christian people (which is, of course, erroneous), this does not mean we were founded as a Christian NATION.

If a bunch of people who happen to be Christian start a bowling team, does this make it de facto a “Christian” bowling team? Not unless they also have some rules that MAKE it Christian.

And I don’t see those rules having been set… Quite the opposite, actually…

Yer pal,

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David B used me as a cite!*

Just to throw in some other things. The Christians who like to claim we are a Christian nation and want to put up the ten commandments and otherwise blur church/state lines would really dislike the Christianity of the founding fathers. Many of them believed in works being important for getting into heaven, they thought man could help their own salvation, which was not an uncommon belief at the time.

The document that starts modern conservative protestant Christianity is called the Fundementals. It includes that the bible is 100% correct, that there is exclusive salvation through Christ and not works, and all the other fundementalist rhetoric that I’m sure everyone has heard. I forget when it was written (though I’ll look if anyone is interested) but it was most definetly after the founding of the nation, and was probably sometime mid 1800s. This brand of Christianity didn’t really exist at the time of the creation of this country, so I doubt that this nation was founded to be a fundementalist protestant nation.