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American History to 1877
The Constitution reflects our founder’s views of a secular government, protecting the freedom of any belief or unbelief. Some will argue religion, specifically Christianity, played a large role in the creation of this great nation’s government, the United States Constitution; however the facts reveal otherwise. The historian, Robert Middlekauff, observed, "the idea that the Constitution expressed a moral view seems absurd. There were no genuine evangelicals in the Convention, and there were no heated
declarations of Christian piety."1
When the Constitution was submitted to the American public, many people complained the document had slighted God, for it contained "no recognition of his mercies to us ...or even of his existence." Religion was left out of the Constitution for two reasons: first, many delegates were committed federalists, who believed that the power to legislate on religion, if it existed at all, lay within the domain of the state, not the national, governments; second, the delegates believed that it would be a deliberate mistake to introduce such a politically controversial issue as religion into the Constitution. The only "religious clause" in the document--the proscription of religious tests as qualifications for federal office in Article Six--was intended to defuse controversy by disarming potential critics who might claim religious discrimination in eligibility for public office.
The Constitution dealt with the church precisely as the Articles had, thereby maintaining, at the national level, the religious status quo. In neither document did the people yield any explicit power to act in the field of religion.
Much of the myth of Washington's alleged Christianity came from Mason Weems influential book, "Life of Washington." The story of the cherry tree comes from this book and it has no historical basis. Weems, a Christian minister portrayed Washington as a devout Christian, yet Washington's own diaries show that he rarely attended Church.
Washington revealed almost nothing to indicate his spiritual frame of mind, hardly a mark of a devout Christian. In his thousands of letters, the name of Jesus Christ never appears. He rarely spoke about his religion, but his Freemasonry experience points to a belief in deism. Washington's initiation occurred at the Fredericksburg Lodge on 4 November 1752, later becoming a Master mason in 1799, and remained a freemason until he died.
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After Washington's death, Dr. Abercrombie, a friend of his, replied to a Dr. Wilson, who had interrogated him about Washington's religion replied, "Sir, Washington was a Deist."2
Called the father of the Constitution, Madison had no conventional sense of Christianity. In 1785, Madison wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments:
"During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity 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."3
"What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not."4
THE U.S. CONSTITUTION:
The most convincing evidence that our government did not ground itself upon Christianity comes from the very document that defines it-- the United States Constitution.
If our Framers had aimed to found a Christian republic, it would seem highly unlikely that they would have forgotten to leave out their Christian intentions in the Supreme law of the land. In fact, nowhere in the Constitution do we have a single mention of Christianity, God, Jesus, or any Supreme Being. There occurs only two references to religion and they both use exclusionary wording. The 1st Amendment's says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . ." and in Article VI, Section 3, "...no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
Thomas Jefferson interpreted the 1st Amendment in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in January 1, 1802:
"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State."5
Some Religious activists try to extricate the concept of separation between church and State by claiming that those words do not occur in the Constitution. Indeed they do not, but neither does it exactly say "freedom of religion," yet the First Amendment implies both.
James Madison, perhaps the greatest supporter for separation of church and State, and whom many refer to as the father of the Constitution, also held similar views which he expressed in his letter to Edward Livingston, 10 July 1822:
"And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together."6
Today, if our government needs proof that the separation of church and State works to ensure the freedom of religion, they only need to look at the plethora of Churches, temples, and shrines that exist in the cities and towns throughout the United States. Only a secular government, divorced from religion could possibly allow such diversity.
THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE:
Many Christians who think of America as founded upon Christianity usually present the Declaration as "proof." The reason appears obvious: the document mentions God. However, the God in the Declaration does not describe Christianity's God. It describes "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." This nature's view of God agrees with deist philosophy but any attempt to use the Declaration as a support for Christianity will fail for this reason alone.
More significantly, the Declaration does not represent the law of the land as it came before the Constitution. The Declaration aimed at announcing their separation from Great Britain and listed the various grievances with the "thirteen united States of America." The grievances against Great Britain no longer hold, and we have more than thirteen states. Today, the Declaration represents an important historical document about rebellious intentions against Great Britain at a time before the formation of our independent government. Although the Declaration may have influential power, it may inspire the lofty thoughts of poets, and judges may mention it in their summations, it holds no legal power today. Our presidents, judges and policemen must take an oath to uphold the Constitution, but never to the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration depicts a great political document, as it aimed at a future government upheld by citizens instead of a religious monarchy. It observed that all men "are created equal" meaning that we all come inborn with the abilities of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men." The Declaration says nothing about our rights secured by Christianity, nor does it imply anything about a Christian foundation.
In 1802, President Jefferson wrote a letter to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, in which he declared that it was the purpose of the First Amendment to build "a wall of separation between Church and State."7
RELIGION AND THE BILL OF RIGHTS:
Many Americans were disappointed that the Constitution did not contain a bill of rights that would explicitly enumerate the rights of American citizens and enable courts and public opinion to protect these rights from an oppressive government. Supporters of a bill of rights permitted the Constitution to be adopted with the understanding that the first Congress under the new government would attempt to add a bill of rights.
The American Constitution and Bill of Rights introduced a new relationship between religion and government. Prior to 1789, almost every European country maintained a close relationship between church and state. James Madison, the principal drafter of the First Amendment, proposed that, unlike European states, the government should not tax its citizens to support religious activities, nor should it promote religious beliefs, and that all religious beliefs should be treated equally and fairly. He believed that religion would thrive best when the government did not promote some religious beliefs to the exclusion of others.
Madison’s ideals, now embodied in the Constitution, were exactly right. Americans enjoy more religious freedom than do people in any other country in the world.
The Framers derived an independent government out of Enlightenment thinking against the grievances caused by Great Britain. Our Founders paid little heed to political beliefs about Christianity. The 1st Amendment stands as the bulkhead against an establishment of religion and at the same time insures the free expression of any belief. The Treaty of Tripoli, an instrument of the Constitution, clearly stated our non-Christian foundation. We inherited common law from Great Britain which derived from pre-Christian Saxons rather than from Biblical scripture.
Today we have powerful Christian organizations who work to spread historical myths about early America and attempt to bring a Christian theocracy to the government. Fortunately, most liberal Christians today agree with the principles of separation of church and State, just as they did in early America.
"They all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point"8
-Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
1. Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause (Oxford University Press, 1982), 134.
2. John E. Remsburg, Six Historic Americans (The Truth Seeker Company, 1906),95.
3. A. Kock, ed., The American Enlightenment: The Shaping of the American Experiment and a Free Society (1965), 97
4. Ibid., 98
5. R. Boston, Why the Religious Right is Wrong About Separation of Church and State (Prometheus Books, 1993), 74
6. Ibid., 127
7. A. Libscomb ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1904), 281.
8. George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations (Pocket Books, 1967), 48.
Boston, R. (1993). Why the Religious Right is Wrong About Separation of Church & State, Prometheus Books.
Gay, K. (1992). Church and State, The Millbrook Press.
Handy, R. T. (1997). A History of the Churches in U.S. and Canada, New York: Oxford University Press.
Kock, A., ed. (1965). The American Enlightenment: The Shaping of the American Experiment and a Free Society, New York: George Braziller.
Middlekauff, R. (1982). The Glorious Cause, Oxford University Press.
Peterson, M. D. (1984). Thomas Jefferson Writings, The Library of America.
Remsburg, J. E. Six Historic Americans, The Truth Seeker Company, New York.
Roche, O.I.A., ed (1964). The Jefferson Bible: with the Annotated Commentaries on Religion of Thomas Jefferson, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc.
Seldes, George, ed. (1967) The Great Quotations, Pocket Books, New York.