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The Founding Fathers’ Religious Wisdom

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In recent years, we have been told by a variety of conservatives that America’s founding fathers established the country under Christian doctrine—that we are a “Christian nation” and should operate accordingly.

This notion—that our country’s roots are explicitly Christian—is both foolish and wrong, for it devalues the Christian faith and disrespects the genius of the founding fathers. Christianity does not need to be endorsed by law or some fantasized re-interpretation of the Constitution in order to have meaning in people’s lives. Let’s face it. Will Christianity be seriously jeopardized if its followers learn that only one of the 56 founding fathers was a member of the clergy? Will their faith be dashed if they discover that James Madison objected to chaplains opening the proceedings of Congress with prayer? And more recently, will people ignore the Bible if the Ten Commandments aren’t posted in courtrooms or if the nativity scene in town squares shares space with a menorah? When people say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” at Wal-Mart, are they attacking Jesus? For Christians secure in their faith, the answer to all these questions should be a resounding “no.”

The genius of the founding fathers is they understood that Christianity could not only stand on its own but would thrive without being written into the laws and founding documents of the country. In fact, it was likely their own “faith” that led them to this conclusion. Many of the founding fathers—Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison and Monroe—practiced a faith called Deism. Deism is a philosophical belief in human reason as a reliable means of solving social and political problems. Deists believe in a supreme being who created the universe to operate solely by natural laws—and after creation, is absent from the world. This belief in reason over dogma helped guide the founders toward a system of government that respected faiths like Christianity, while purposely isolating both from encroaching on one another so as not to dilute the overall purpose and objectives of either.

If the founders were dogmatic about anything, it was the belief that a person’s faith should not be intruded upon by government and that religious doctrine should not be written into governance. James Madison, for instance, was vigorously opposed to religious intrusions into civil affairs. In 1785, when the Commonwealth of Virginia was considering passage of a bill “establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” Madison wrote his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” in which he presented 15 reasons why government should not become involved in the support of any religion.

In his first term as president, Thomas Jefferson declared his firm belief in the separation of church and state in a letter to the Danbury, Conn. Baptists. He said: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, 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.”

A treaty of peace and friendship between the United States and Tripoli that was approved by George Washington explicitly stated: “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion…” This treaty was negotiated by the American diplomat Joel Barlow during the administration of George Washington. Washington read it and approved it, although it was not ratified by the senate until John Adams had become president.

Finally, and most obviously, if the founding fathers intended to include Jesus, the Bible, or other particular aspects of the Christian faith in the founding of our nation, they would have expressly done so. However, the two references to religion that are in the Constitution contain exclusionary language. The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . .” and in Article VI, Section III, “… no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

The founding fathers’ purposes were clear. They had no intention to found the country according to Christian doctrines. Having said that, it is important to add that this exclusion in no way devalued the importance of the Christian religion in their minds—nor should it in ours. Christianity is thriving in America, and so is Judaism, Islam, and other religions. Rather than listening to those who distort history and pit one faith as superior to others because it is more “American,” we should instead be working together on a shared spiritual vision—to empower the poor and marginalized, heal the planet, bring relief to those who suffer, and bring peace to our precious world. We should instead be grateful for the wisdom of our founding fathers who purposely devised a government and a nation based upon the Constitution that gave people the freedom and liberty to practice their religion. This system has worked amazingly well for over 200 years and is the envy of many countries ensnared in sectarian strife. Our history is one to be proud of, for it allows religious and political freedom, both of which are precious commodities in today’s world.

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