By Brian Bolton
"The United States of America is a Christian nation" is standard propaganda parroted by fundamentalist politicians and it is demonstrably false. This assertion is central to the national fundamentalist agenda that has the larger goal of rewriting American history from a biblical perspective.
Several strategies have been implemented to disseminate the Christian nation myth, including the dishonest Christian Heritage Week proclamations, the sabre-rattling God and Country Day services on July Fourth, the evangelical Mayor's Prayer Breakfasts, and most recently, the highly divisive "cities of character" campaigns.
This article summarizes the religious beliefs of 10 prominent founders of the United States, overviews the religious philosophies of Deism and Unitarianism, outlines all references to religion in three basic U.S. political documents, and analyzes the motivational roots of religious fundamentalism.
Ten Prominent Founders
George Washington was nominally an Episcopalian. Because he seldom attended church and was not a communicant, he was accused of being an agnostic and even an atheist. He denounced the Calvinist doctrine of original sin, he never mentioned Jesus in his writings, and he used the term Providence as synonymous with destiny or fate. His prayer at Valley Forge (kneeling in the snow) is now acknowledged to be a fabrication. He was a Deist.
John Adams studied for the ministry at Harvard. Doubts about his Christian convictions led him to shift to the law. Although he wrote favorably of Christianity and Jesus throughout his life, he rejected orthodox Christian dogma. He was a Unitarian.
Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and coined the oft-repeated phrase, "the wall of separation between church and state." Political opponents called him a "champion of atheism and immorality" because he denied the deity of Jesus, he did not think the bible was God's word, and he rejected the Christian concept of hell as a state of everlasting punishment. Yet, he greatly admired Jesus' moral teachings and assembled them into a booklet referred to as Jefferson's Bible. He was a Deist.
James Madison is known as the father of the U.S. Constitution. He did not attend church, but he spoke out repeatedly on behalf of freedom of conscience, which he believed was a basic right of citizenship. He opposed any form of government support for religion, because history demonstrates that established churches tend to produce "superstition, bigotry, and persecution." He opposed the appointment of a chaplain for the U.S. Congress. In his writings, he used the terms Governor of the Universe and Universal Sovereign. He was a Deist.
James Monroe attended an Episcopal church, but never talked about his religious beliefs because he considered religion to be a private matter. A reference to the Divine Author of All Good in his second annual message to Congress suggests that he may have been a Deist.
John Quincy Adams was not a regular church-goer, causing some religious people to call him an atheist. Ironically. he read at least three chapters of the bible each day and read through the entire bible every year. A lifelong opponent of slavery, he severely criticized clergy and parishioners for not condemning slavery on religious and moral grounds. Like his father, he was a Unitarian.
Benjamin Franklin rejected nearly all doctrinal aspects of Christianity. While he doubted Jesus' divinity, he applauded his ethical teachings. He considered morality to be independent of religion and stressed the cultivation of civic virtue in his writings. He opposed oaths and religious tests for public office. He was a Deist.
Ethan Allen was a military hero of the American Revolution, best known for conquering the British stronghold at Fort Ticonderoga. He formulated a Deistic philosophy based on reason, disavowing revelation and miracles. His treatise, Reason the Only Oracle of Man,was the first openly anti-Christian book published in the U.S. He was a Deist.
Thomas Paine is best known for his immensely popular book, Common Sense, which developed the argument for independence from England. In another persuasive volume, The Age of Reason,he demonstrated that the bible's claims could not be true and he ridiculed Christianity, which he regarded as an obstacle to social and political reform. The charge that he was an atheist is false; he believed in God and an afterlife. He was a Deist.
Joel Barlow was a revolutionary political writer and diplomat. As U.S. Consul to Algiers, he negotiated the Treaty of Tripoli which assures that "the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." The treaty was approved by the U.S. Senate and signed by President John Adams, thus making it the supreme law of the land. He was later U.S. minister to France, where he died during Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. He was a Deist.
Deism and Unitarianism
What can we conclude about the religious views of these 10 American founders? First, eight were Deists and two were Unitarians. Second, all were advocates of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. Third, ironically, most were themselves targets of religious bigots. Fourth, none was an orthodox Christian. And fifth, none was even remotely close to the modern day fundamentalists who attempt to expropriate these men for partisan political purposes.
Deism was a religious philosophy popular among educated people living in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was referred to as a natural religion, meaning that it was based entirely on reason, explicitly rejecting all forms of revelation.
Deists believed in God as a celestial explanatory mechanism or first cause, but disaffirmed all claims of divine authority, including the deity of Christ. Yet, Deists endorsed the ethical teachings of Jesus, as well as those of other religious prophets. Deists also denounced all religious dogma and creeds and were strong supporters of religious liberty. Concerning belief in God, it should be remembered that this was before the advent of Darwinian evolution and modern cosmological theories.
The modern equivalent of Deism is Unitarianism, a secular religion committed to the principles of freedom, reason, tolerance, science, and democracy.
Unitarianism is a noncreedal religion aligned with the philosophy of naturalistic humanism that welcomes all people of good will, nonbelievers, as well as believers. If the ten prominent founders were alive today, they would most certainly embrace the philosophy of naturalistic Humanism and they would properly be called Unitarians or Humanists.
Three Basic Documents
It should not be surprising that the four references to God in the Declaration of Independence are Deistic terms: Nature's God, Creator, Supreme Judge of the World and Divine Providence. Most important, the Declaration states explicitly that government derives its powers from the consent of the governed--not from God, Jesus or the bible.
The only mention of religion in the U.S. Constitution is contained in Article 6, which prohibits any religious test as a qualification for holding office and allows appointees to affirm rather than swear an oath. The Constitution is devoid of references to God, Jesus, the bible, or the Christian religion. Nor does the presidential oath of office prescribed in Article 2 include the phrase, "So help me God."
The single reference to religion in the Bill of Rights occurs in the First Amendment, which prevents Congress from establishing a religion or interfering with the religious practices of citizens. In other words, the U.S. Constitution guarantees religious freedom, recognizing that belief or unbelief is a matter of personal choice, not governmental mandate.
Addressing a related issue, the phrase "under God" was inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" was placed on currency and made the national motto by Congress as a cowardly reaction to one of the most embarrassing episodes in American history--the McCarthy hysteria of the early 1950s. The original U.S. motto, selected by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, is E. pluribus unum, meaning "of Many, One," which celebrates American ethnic and cultural diversity.
Finally, it is necessary to note that the Arkansas Constitution excludes citizens who deny the existence of God from holding public office or testifying in court proceedings. This state-sanctioned discrimination against unbelievers obviously violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against religious tests. And while the Arkansas anachronism is clearly rendered invalid by the 14th Amendment, it still should be legally removed because it is an affront to freedom of conscience.
The myth that America is a Christian nation is flatly contradicted by the eminent historian Daniel Boorstin, who identified the defining characteristic of this nation to be American humanism, which is the legacy of Thomas Jefferson. The United States is built on the concept of community, not on the minor distinctions that separate us.
Boorstin further maintains that the real menace to America today is in the emphasis on our differences, including religious dogma and practice, rather than a focus on our shared values and common beliefs. He points out that the United States does not have a dogmatic ideology, but instead relies on the great institution of the Constitution, which is an entirely secular instrument.
Pat Robertson, the former presidential candidate and national spokesman for fundamentalist doctrine, has decreed that only Christians should be allowed to hold political office in America. He obviously doesn't have a high regard for the U.S. Constitution, nor does he appreciate the wisdom of American humanism. His goal is to create a fundamentalist theocracy in America.
The national fundamentalist agenda opposes public schools, cultural pluralism, environmental protection, abortion, evolution, gays, women, gun control, and the right to die, and endorses public prayer, censorship, and capital punishment. In other words, fundamentalists reject America's highest values: freedom of choice, the right to personal privacy, and tolerance of and respect for individual differences.
Foundation Life Member Brian Bolton is a psychologist, a Humanist counselor and University Professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas. He now lives in Texas.
This article was first published in the Northwest Arkansas Times.