There’s a raging debate in America about whether America is primarily a “Christian nation.” The debate rests on what the founding fathers intended when they put together their plan for what America could be.
Us liberals say that freedom of religion is paramount to all that America stands for, that it was created as a place where people could be certain of being free to practice religion or lack of religion in whatever way worked for them (presuming it didn’t involve physically hurting others. Emotional hurting, well, evangelism does plenty of that). That the founding fathers envisioned a place where people would not have to fear that their religion or lack of a religion would put them in danger or make them second class citizens. Many of the first settlers were escaping religious persecution.
Conservatives say that the founding fathers of this nation could never have anticipated how far we have taken the concept of freedom or religion and separation of church and state. They say the founding fathers only knew varieties of Christians. They were trying to protect persecuted sects of Christians and not just anybody of any religion.
Obviously we can’t ask them for clarification now.
But it seems pretty clear to me that the founding fathers meant what they set up. We cannot presume to know what they would have thought if they had different knowledge. We can’t even presume to know what their knowledge was. They made their intentions very clear and it’s absurd to say that they didn’t really mean it.
In their eagerness to have the Founders on “their side,” modern Christians try to promote the idea that America is meant to be a Christian nation. But the Founding Fathers — those men who formed and nurtured this nation — were not all Christian. Most were free-thinkers, agnostics and Deists. No matter what their religious leanings, however, they fought for a secular state. They saw how Europe had fared with theocracies and state-sponsored religion and wanted none of it here.
The view that America is a Christian nation is nothing more than fantasy and revisionist history on the part of one religion. This religion has forced itself onto the state: from coinage to the Pledge of Allegiance, we see its fingerprints. This religion is shown deference in ways other religions have to fight for. But they still try to rewrite history to claim the Founding Fathers for their own religion. –21 Quotes from the Founding Fathers on the Separation of Church and State
Were the founding fathers Christian at all? Some of them yes. Some of them no. Some of them “spiritual but not religious” as we would put it today! Jefferson respected Jesus but rejected the teachings of the Bible. John Adams? A Unitarian. Famous for believing that Truth can be found in all traditions in the world. George Washington? ““If I could conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded, that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”
~~ Letter to the United Baptist Chamber of Virginia, May 1789” –21 Quotes from the Founding Fathers on the Separation of Church and State
We actually get the phrase “separation between church and state” from Thomas Jefferson:
In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Court drew on Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence to call for “a wall of separation between church and State”, though the precise boundary of this separation remains in dispute. –Wikipedia
Here is another essay on the subject, this is the introduction:
Many well-meaning Christians argue that the United States was founded by Christian men on Christian principles. Although well-intentioned, such sentiment is unfounded. The men who lead the United States in its revolution against England, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and put together the Constitution were not Christians by any stretch of the imagination.
Why do some Christians imagine these men are Christians? Besides a desperate desire that it should be so, in a selective examination of their writings, one can discover positive statements about God and/or Christianity. However, merely believing in God does not make a person a Christian…
Merely believing in God is insufficient evidence for demonstrating either Christian principles or that a person is a Christian. –Notes On The Founding Fathers and the Separation of Church and State
The founding fathers were responsible for the first amendment, guaranteeing religious freedoms for all. Here is more on how Jefferson felt about it:
Thomas Jefferson wrote with respect to the First Amendment and its restriction on the legislative branch of the federal government in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists (a religious minority concerned about the dominant position of the Congregationalist church in Connecticut):
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & 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 & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
You will notice that these are two groups of Christians being spoken of. So yes, all these freedoms may have been set up to mainly protect different sects of Christianity, yet Jefferson says that religion is between a person and their God. Not the business of the government.
It actually seems very strange to me that the Republicans who fight for less government, smaller government, less regulations on our freedoms want the government meddling in citizen’s religious expression.
I really think we have to take the founding fathers on their word and trust them when they say that building a wall between church and the state is critical for the rights and freedoms of all Americans. Separation of church and state protects us all.
(For more information, here is an interesting gathering of arguments on both sides on whether the founding fathers supported the separation of religion and government)
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