The Intentions of the Founding Fathers: Christian Nation?

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 

founding fathers

By Guy Moss (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.[9]

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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About Ambaa Choate

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • Larry Linn

    “This nation of ours was not founded on Christian principles.”— John Adams

    “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.” – James Madison

    “Question with boldness even the existence of a god.” – Thomas Jefferson (letter to Peter Carr, 10 August 1787)

    • Tim Tremblay

      BS Larry – They were all believers in Almighty God in their own damned ways just like now. Some were more devout than others for sure and there were a few heathen dogs no doubt.

      • Sandpirate

        Just because they were Christians in their personal life does not mean that they intended the government or the people as a whole to be or act as Christians.

        • BlackRobe77

          Read the State Constitutions from the first thirteen colonies for crying out loud.

          • Sandpirate

            Ok. What do the other 37 state constitutions say? Are all 50 the same regarding the level of religious involvement in government affairs? Fact is we have freedom to follow any religion or none in this country so no, one religion gets to have priority in making laws.

          • BlackRobe77

            I don’t think the founders envisioned “Radical Islam”, do you? I don’t think the framers were thinking about “Sharia Law” , Do You?

          • a r tompkins

            I doubt if they were all envisioning the exact seem things, but I think it’s fair to say that by consensus they were envisioning NO religious law as the law of the land. They were envisioning a secular government where no one is above the laws and laws are inspired by reason. Don’t take my word for it. Read the US Constitution for christ’s sake.

          • Sandpirate

            No, I don’t think they were thinking of any theocracy taking over; Christian, Muslim, or otherwise.

          • lageorgia

            The founders were very well aware of “Mohammedians” or what we today call Muslims. It was the writing of T. Jefferson who stated he wished there were MORE Mohammedians in our government. From the very beginning of our country there have been Muslims living here.

            The founders would be wary of “radical” Islam just like they would be wary of fundamentalist right wing Christianity trying to take over. But thankfully “radical” Islam is not the norm for followers of Islam.

            As for Sharia law, you are watching way too much Fox. Our Constitution is our law and there is no possible way for any stated, city, or body of law to implement any facet of Sharia law.

            Our wall between church and state allows me as a Christian to practice my faith and EQUALLY gives my neighbor, a Buddhist the same rights. ALL faith is equal in this country. We are not a Christian country that tolerates other faiths, all faiths are of equal worth in the eyes of our Constitution

          • BlackRobe77

            I don’t watch Fox News. Isn’t it nice to be judge and accused by a tolerant person such as yourself. Read some Bridgette Gabriell and find out what the moderates do when the Radicals gain an upper hand.The so called “Moderates” in Lebanon before the PLO took over. School teachers, doctors, lawyers, school mates, moderates that she shared her life with at community events, in the market place etc. Well, the moderates turned into killing machines over night when the radicals took over.

            Why can’t you just live in peace with the 2,900 red rural county’s that voted for Trump? As opposed to the 480 little pockets of Blue that surround the cities. Why are you so intolerant of Evangelical’s ?

            Why do you force your agenda and beliefs upon others? As Andrew Breitbart said. There is no leaving in peaceful harmony with progressives, there is no white flag, there is no live and let live”. No, you want to impose your values and beliefs upon the rural areas because of our Bibles and Gun’s. You hate us, and your going to keep pushing and pushing and pushing until we reach the point of No return. God Help us when that day comes.

            Sorry, I don’t buy into your Saul Alinsky tactics nor do most of the 60 MILLION people that voted for Trump.

          • Ambaa

            I think that a secular government protects all of us. Christians won’t be forced to practice a different religion or atheism. And us Hindus won’t be forced to practice Christianity. I do want to live and let live, to live in harmony To ask that we not be coerced into Christianity in our government is not imposing our beliefs on you. YOu are free to practice and we are free to practice without persecution with all beliefs. I don’t hate you or your Bible or your guns. I have no problem with any of that.

          • Ambaa

            Freedom of religion means that radical Islam can’t take over either. “Sharia Law” can’t take over. No religion is above any other and we all have freedom to practice. We are all subject to the lasw of the country, not the laws of religion.

          • lageorgia

            One of the biggest arguments during our founding was the fight between states rights and a stronger federal government. There were months of heated letters going back and forth, accusations, verbal abuse etc.

            In the end the decision to have a stronger federal government that would rule over the states with the states retaining some rights but always be subjugated to the federal government won. So states that came up with their own laws that were directly in opposition to federal law would always lose in court.

            An example is N.C. today. Trying to pass a bill that would make same sex marriage illegal in the state thus activating their state rights clause will eventually go to federal court where the ruling will be that same sex marriage is the law of the land decided on by the federal Supreme Court thus N.C. will lose.

      • lageorgia

        The beliefs of the founders was formed in a Protestant Europe and a rejection of the Roman Catholic faith. In fact one of the reasons they were so strong on the wall between church and state was they saw what the Catholic church had done to Europe and they wanted to avoid that here.

        While their culture was of Protestant theology there was also a third arm that had gained strength and taken root…that of the Enlightenment..meaning the age of reason; the age of man. Most of our founders fell into this latter group: men of the Enlightenment.

        The grand experiment of the new America was no king, no God at the helm but a country created based on reason, science, and man.

        So with all of this (I have a PhD in Enlightenment history) there were 2 founders who we could classify as more traditional Christian but their input didn’t take and their influence was minor. The rest fell into the humanist, man centered, scientific realm albeit their culture, their background was of a Protestant Christian Europe.

        The mistake is always placing our 21 century values on people of history. Our definition of what makes a Christian is very different from a defined 17 and 18 century Christian. And even in our own time we have different values for whom can really be called a Christian. Those, like myself, who are liberal but believe in Christ are not accepted by those of an extremely conservative bent. And we Christian liberals tend to look down our noses at the right wing fundies as being everything Jesus taught not to do.

        Some of the first European settlers were the Pilgrims and the Puritans but by the time of the actual creation of our founding documents no Puritan or Pilgrim was consulted for their input. In fact their faith and their reason for coming here (to create a land ruled by their theology even if the two groups disagreed over whose theology was the correct one) had died out to a great extent by the time the Constitutional Conventions got underway

  • Tom Gordon

    “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.”

    That argument could be used against firearms and the Second Amendment then, too.

    Sorry, “conservatives,” you can’t have it both ways.

  • Tim Tremblay

    WASHINGTON KNELT DOWN and Prayed to Almighty God on the frozen Potomac River and if that does NOT tell you all that he was a “CHRISTIAN” I don’t know what does~! Wake Up dammit~!!!

    • Michael Reid

      So the people in mosques who kneel down to pray must also be Christians, right? Same with those guys in the black hats and prayer shawls at the Wailing Wall – they must be Christians, too!

    • lageorgia

      Ummm no he didn’t. That painting and story were created later just like the “I can not tell a lie I chopped down the cherry tree” to make Washington into the kind of hero we wanted as our first president.

      Because he was away from his wife, Martha, for most of their marriage we have a great insight into his feelings and beliefs through all the letters written back and forth. Martha was a believing Christian but George was not. He wrote often how he wished he had her faith but he couldn’t believe in any God after the horrors he witnessed in the war.

      The myth of Washington and the reality parted ways decades ago. I have a PhD in history and I am also a Christian.

      Their marriage, as was common, was a marriage of convenience. She was a wealthy widow who needed someone to help her run her plantation and he was in need of money and position. Did they love each other? They greatly respected each other but as for love we don’t know.

      You probably believe that Washington was our first president as that is what is taught in schools. To have a war hero be our first is very romantic but false.

      Our first president was John Hanson but he has been lost to history. The new country was actually formed on March 1, 1781 with the adoption of The Articles of Confederation.

      This document was actually proposed on June 11, 1776, but not agreed upon by Congress until November 15,1777.

      Maryland refused to sign this document until Virginia and New York ceded their western lands (Maryland was afraid that these states would gain too much power in the new government from such large amounts of land).

      Once the signing took place in 1781, a President was needed to run the country.

      John Hanson was chosen unanimously by Congress (which included George Washington). In fact, all the other potential candidates refused to run against him, as he was a major player in the revolution and an extremely influential member of Congress.

      He took office right after the Revolutionary War ended.

      After Hanson there were 7 other presidents until we arrive at Washington.

      Seven other presidents were elected after him — Elias Boudinot (1782-83), Thomas Mifflin (1783-84), Richard Henry Lee (1784-85), John Hancock (1785-86), Nathan Gorman (1786-87), Arthur St. Clair (1787-88), and Cyrus Griffin (1788-89) — all prior to Washington taking office

      So what happened?

      Why don’t we hear about the first eight presidents?

      It’s quite simple — The Articles of Confederation didn’t work well. The individual states had too much power and nothing could be agreed upon. A new doctrine needed to be written — something we know as the Constitution.

      And that leads us to the end of our story.

      George Washington was definitely not the first President of the United States. He was the first President of the United States under the Constitution we follow today.

      And the first eight Presidents are forgotten in history while Washington had his true story warped by myth to fit an image needed for the new country

      • Ambaa

        That is so interesting!

    • Ambaa

      Even if Washington was Christian, that does not mean that he wanted the government to impose Christianity on everyone. He most clearly did not.

  • Tim Tremblay

    TO THIS DAY FOOLS say in their hearts “there is no God”~!! I have “seen Christ” and KNOW full well HE IS GOD~!

    • a r tompkins

      how do you “down-vote” somebody – your post deserves it.

    • Adam King

      You should schedule an eye exam.

      • Tim Tremblay

        You should schedule an Anal Exam., eh?

        • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea

          Did Jesus say that in the Bible? I see you follow his example by word and deed

    • lageorgia

      Please put down whatever you are smoking.

      • Tim Tremblay

        Please wake up and pull your head out of your own BUTT~! Lol~!!!

    • Ambaa

      Good for you. Enjoy your belief in Christ, have great joy in it. Let it light your life with goodness and kindness. And let us have our own equally sincere belief and trust in our Gods!

      • Tim Tremblay

        I have seen Christ and know HE alone is GOD my dear Ambaa., HE is King in the Spirit Realms and King over all the earth~! If You don’t believe it now you will most definitely see one day. God Bless~!

  • BT

    A “raging” debate is an overstatement. There is a small-ish group (primarily Christian reconstructionists and “American civil religion” converts) that’s raging over it, but for most everyone else it’s been settled for quite some time.

    • a r tompkins

      Unfortunately, that “small-ish group” is in charge of the three major branches of US government and many of its states. :(

    • RPlavo .

      Those reconstructionists get elected to state legislatures, like in PA, and decide to run for the Senate

    • lageorgia

      They are a small but very powerful group. They are the group in charge of writing the history books used in our public school systems.

      • BT

        I agree with all of the above. I’m just not that comfortable calling it a “raging debate”. That seems in my mind to confer upon it an intellectual credibility that it just doesn’t have outside a small – though currently powerful – group.

        There’s really not much of a debate on it per se – just a highly vocal and powerful (if not terribly well informed) minority.

    • Ambaa

      Fair enough! It feels “raging” to me since I interact with people who believe it!

  • BeaverTales

    If Christianity’s mission was the extinction of non-European pagans and their beliefs, it nearly accomplished its mission. As a religious haven, it worked best for Christians and few others, until secularism was born.

  • a r tompkins

    “… founded on biblical principles…”. I have asked those that maintain that delusion to show me where in the Bible is there anything about “one white-landowning-man per vote”, or about “pursuit of happiness”, or about a three-pronged system of checks and balances, or about a government that should not make laws that inhibit freedom of speech or religion, or about the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and illegal search and seizure, or about the right to a speedy trial and to be judged by one’s peers, etc, etc. Where in the Bible is there anything at all about any of those things? They never show me. Why? Instead, the Bible is chock full of shit like punishing fornicators, non-virgins, bastards, gays, infidels, etc, with death by stoning. Thank god we’re not a government of god’s principles. Thank god.

    • Ambaa

      Good point!

  • lageorgia

    The beliefs of the founders was formed in a Protestant Europe and a rejection of the Roman Catholic faith. In fact one of the reasons they were so strong on the wall between church and state was they saw what the Catholic church had done to Europe and they wanted to avoid that here.

    While their culture was of Protestant theology there was also a third arm that had gained strength and taken root…that of the Enlightenment..meaning the age of reason; the age of man. Most of our founders fell into this latter group: men of the Enlightenment.

    The grand experiment of the new America was no king, no God at the helm but a country created based on reason, science, and man.

    So with all of this (I have a PhD in Enlightenment history) there were 2 founders who we could classify as more traditional Christian but their input didn’t take and their influence was minor. The rest fell into the humanist, man centered, scientific realm albeit their culture, their background was of a Protestant Christian Europe.

    The mistake is always placing our 21 century values on people of history. Our definition of what makes a Christian is very different from a defined 17 and 18 century Christian. And even in our own time we have different values for whom can really be called a Christian. Those, like myself, who are liberal but believe in Christ are not accepted by those of an extremely conservative bent. And we Christian liberals tend to look down our noses at the right wing fundies as being everything Jesus taught not to do.

    Some of the first European settlers were the Pilgrims and the Puritans but by the time of the actual creation of our founding documents no Puritan or Pilgrim was consulted for their input. In fact their faith and their reason for coming here (to create a land ruled by their theology even if the two groups disagreed over whose theology was the correct one) had died out to a great extent by the time the Constitutional Conventions got underway

    Thus we must be very careful to observe through the historical lens this group of men who created our Constitution by the frame work of our own 2017

    • Ambaa

      Thank you so much for bringing your learning to this discussion!

      • lageorgia

        Your welcome!! I finally get to use some of my degrees and all my years of studying. Never did get a job in my field and now I am a juried artist and having the time of my life. It does bother me that our history is being rewritten and the truth seems to be unneeded in today’s political climate.