On Christmas, I decided to dig into my old archives of posts and repost some of my favorites from past Decembers. And since this blog is now 16 years old, there were a lot to choose from. I settled on posts from 2003, just a month into the blog’s existence, when I was writing much more often about separation of church and state and the influence of Christianity on the Founding Fathers. This is the second one.
Answering a ‘Christian Nation’ E-mail
There is an e-mail making the rounds with a set of arguments alleging to prove that the US is a “Christian Nation.” The entire e-mail was taken directly, word for word, from this webpage: http://www.errantskeptics.org/hold_quotes_2.htm, which was in turn taken from an article in Worldnetdaily, and which is quoted verbatim on what seems like hundreds of other webpages. I’ve put the original in italics and my responses in normal text.
We are a Christian nation.
A loaded beginning right off the bat. This statement could mean two very different things, and has been used to mean both things depending on who is speaking. Does this mean we are a nation made up mostly of Christians, whose culture has been highly influenced by Christianity? No one in their right mind would deny that very obvious truth. Or does it mean that we are an officially Christian nation, a nation whose government should endorse Christianity in a de jure or de facto manner? That is a far more controversial statement, one that even most Christians would likely oppose. Since the first one is painfully obvious to everyone, and thus pointless to argue on behalf of, we can safely assume that the author here is advocating the second option.
Immediately after creating the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress voted to purchase and import 20,000 copies of Scripture for the people of this nation.
Not quite true. The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, 1776. The decision to import the bibles was not made until a year later. Some of the members of the Continental Congress were not even the same people who signed the declaration a year earlier. A little background here is important. After we declared independence from England, we lost access to nearly all imports from England, which was our primary source for English language books. A group of Presbyterians was concerned that there was no longer a source for English-language bibles and petitioned the Continental Congress to find a new source from which to import them. They began to look around and had settled on a source in Holland, but it never happened because the British took over Philadelphia and the Congress fled. An American printer began the job of printing them as a business decision, without any government prompting or money behind it.
More importantly, the Continental-Confederation Congress governed the US from 1774 to 1789 and wrote the articles of confederation, the first “constitution” of the US. The Articles of Confederation contained no provisions whatsoever preventing the government from declaring an official religion or endorsing a particular religion. But the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the US Constitution, written in 1787 and ratified in 1789. The US Constitution did contain clear language forbidding the federal government from declaring or endorsing a religious belief. So while the statement is true that the Continental Congress did this, it’s also true that the constitutional system that allowed the action was changed by some of those same men to forbid it a few years later. Something obviously changed in the conception of government between 1777 and 1789. What was it?
Well one thing that changed was that those who wanted separation of church and state began to win the intellectual dispute and convince people of the necessity to keep government out of the religious sphere. In 1779, Thomas Jefferson penned his Act for Establishing Religious Freedom for the state of Virginia. The Virginia legislature did not pass the bill until 1786, when James Madison re-introduced the bill in response to a bill entered by Patrick Henry that would have allowed for “multiple establishments” in the state of Virginia. That is, it would have used tax dollars to support multiple churches, all Christian of course. There was a legislative battle over the two bills, with Patrick Henry on one side and James Madison on the other, one arguing that the government should endorse and support with tax dollars a variety of Christian churches, and the other arguing that the government should stay out of the matter entirely and that to use tax money paid by citizens to support churches that they did not belong to or support was tantamount to religious tyranny. Madison’s view won the day. Henry’s bill was defeated, Jefferson’s original bill declaring a strict separation between church and state in the state of Virginia was ratified, and the tide began to turn against what at that time was termed “establishmentarianism” and in favor of “disestablishmentarianism” – the idea that the government has no authority to endorse any religion. This followed on the heels of Madison writing his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessmentsnts” in 1785, a very influential document arguing for separation that was widely distributed among the men who shaped the constitution. It can’t be overstated how influential the events in Virginia were. Virginia was the key state among the original 13 states, with 4 of the first 5 presidents – Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe – coming from that state, along with other notable founders like Patrick Henry and George Mason. There is a very big difference between the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution on the matter of religious establishments, and that difference was a result of an enormous change in the intellectual tides on that issue in the intervening decade between the two documents.
Patrick Henry, who is called the firebrand of the American Revolution, is still remembered for his words, “Give me liberty or give me death”; but in current textbooks, the context of these words is omitted. Here is what he actually said: “An appeal to arms and the God of hosts is all that is left us. But we shall not fight our battle alone. There is a just God that presides over the destinies of nations. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone. Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it Almighty God. I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death.”
These sentences have been erased from our textbooks. Was Patrick Henry a Christian? The following year, 1776, he wrote this: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great Nation was founded not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For that reason alone, people of other faiths have been afforded freedom of worship here.”
Of course Patrick Henry was a Christian. No one has ever denied that. But do his words really do anything to support the claim that America was intended to be an officially Christian nation? No, for the following reasons. First, notice that he made this declaration about what this nation was “founded upon” before the nation was actually founded. In 1776, we were still British colonies in revolt against King George. There was no “United States” – there was no nation. There was a group of colonies hoping to become a nation. The United States was not founded until at least a year later, when the Articles of Confederation were written, and was not truly established with a coherent political and legal system until 1791, when the bill of rights was ratified and our enduring constitutional system was completed. Secondly, remember that when the time came to frame the Constitution, Patrick Henry was opposed to the passage of the first amendment establishment clause. He was also opposed to the ban on religious tests for office found in Article 6 of the Constitution, believing that only Christians should be allowed to hold office in the US. In fact, he refused to be a delegate to the constitutional convention in 1787 because he knew that the tide had turned against him and his theocratic views. When the constitution was passed, Patrick Henry opposed it specifically because it was a “godless document” and he preached long and hard that because the constitution did not establish the US as an officially Christian nation, it would bring down the wrath of God upon us all. In other words, he was on the losing end of history on this issue and his views on church and state were completely rejected by the founders as a group, both in Virginia and in the Constitutional Convention . Patrick Henry wanted no separation of church and state at all, he wanted an explicitly and officially Christian nation, and he lost the fight for that idea. So in point of fact, citing his views on church and state proves the opposite of what the author intends – it shows that those who pushed for theocracy were in the minority.
Consider these words that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the front of his well-worn Bible: “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus. I have little doubt that our whole country will soon be rallied to the unity of our creator.”
This is a bizarre amalgam of two entirely different quotations, both not only quoted inaccurately AND out of context but attributed to the wrong source, and it points out one of the major problems with these kinds of discussions. Whoever wrote this article originally was either totally dishonest in his quotations, or he is merely copying the quotes from yet another source and he has not bothered to actually look at the original documents themselves too see if the quotation is accurate. Let’s begin the task of examining the quote….
First, none of those words were written “in the front of his well worn bible”. The first sentence of the quote, though quoted completely inaccurately, is from a letter he wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1803. Here is what Jefferson actually said:
“To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which He wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference of all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.”
If the person doing the quoting had bothered to actually read this letter, and many others that Jefferson wrote on the subject, he would know what Jefferson meant by this. One of the primary “corruptions of Christianity” that Jefferson opposed was the claim that Jesus was the son of God. Jefferson not only did not believe that Jesus was divine, he did not believe that Jesus had ever claimed to be the son of God. He viewed Jesus as an ethical philosopher and compared him to Socrates and Epictetus as men who were great thinkers but who, because they wrote nothing themselves, had their views distorted by their students and followers. He lamented the fact that the task of writing about his life and ideas fell to “unlettered and ignorant men”, referring to the gospel writers and especially to Paul, whom he loathed greatly. Jefferson greatly admired the ethical system of Jesus, but completely rejected any claims of his divinity, claims of him having performed miracles, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and all other supernatural claims about him. All of those he considered “corruptions” of Christianity.
The second half of the quote, again quoted entirely inaccurately and wrongly attributed, doesn’t really deal with what is implied at all. In the last 20 years of his life, Jefferson was a supporter of tUnitarianismism of his friend Joseph Priestley and he predicted that this would become the dominant religious view in the US. The quote seems to be a bastardization, pulled entirely out of context, of a letter Jefferson wrote to James Smith in 1822. In this letter, Jefferson shreds the notion of the trinity (remember that he rejected the divinity of Jesus, largely for this reason) and says the following:
“The pure and simple unity of the Creator of the universe, is now all bascendantatn in the Eastern States; it is dawning in the West, and advancing towards the South; and I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States.”
Contrary to the implication here, Jefferson was not talking about America rallying around Christianity, but around a rejection of one of the major tenets of Christianity.
He was also the chairman of the American Bible Society, which he considered his highest and most important role.
This is an outright falsehood. Jefferson was never involved with the American Bible Society in any capacity. He was, however, president of the American Philosophical Society after he left the Presidency in 1808.
On July 4, 1821, President Adams said, “The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: “It connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.”
This is another textbook example of what happens when quotes are simply passed along and repeated without anyone bothering to check the original source to see if it’s accurate. This is why, in scholarly documents, footnotes are used to provide specific documentation of the source of a quote. Let’s follow the trail backwards and see where it leads. The quote is used by David Barton, who is nearly always the modern source of false quotations from the founding fathers. We’ll see an example of another one below. Barton did not get it from the original documents, he got it from another book of quotations by William Federer called America’s God and Country: An Encyclopedia of Quotations. So Federer got it from the original, right? Wrong. Federer’s footnote is to a book by John Wingate Thornton from 1860. The Thornton book is full of quotations and footnotes locating the source of those quotes. But these words, attributed to John Quincy Adams, are not in fact a quote at all. The words belonged to Thornton. The words are not in quotation marks and there is no footnote giving a source. And no one has ever located an original source from Adams that contain those words, of even a similar sentiment to it. The quote, to be blunt, is a fake. Adams never said it. But this is an excellent example of what passes for historical scholarship among the Christian Nation proponents – the truth doesn’t matter so long as something can be made to appear as supporting their position.
Calvin Coolidge, our 30th President of the United States reaffirmed this truth when he wrote, “The foundations of our society and our government rest so much on the teachings of the Bible that it would be difficult to support them if faith in these teachings would cease to be practically universal in our country.”
I’m at a loss to understand how the words of Coolidge, well over a century after the founding of the country, mean much when it comes to the issue at hand. I would ask Coolidge the same question I ask everyone else who makes this claim today. If the “foundations of our government” rest on the teachings of the bible, then which principles found in the constitution that establishes our government are found in the bible? No one ever manages to answer that question because there is no answer. There is nothing in the constitution which rests on the validity of the bible at all. In the Federalist Papers, the essays that Madison, Hamilton and Jay wrote to explain the defend the ideas found in the Constitution to convince the citizens to vote for them, the bible is not cited once. They repeatedly trace the ideas found in the Constitution to John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, Cicero and other philosophers, but not once do they explain any provision of the constitution as flowing from a biblical principle.
In 1782, the United States Congress voted this resolution: “The Congress of the United States recommends and approves the Holy Bible for use in all schools.”
Again, this is from before the passage of the constitution. There was no “United States Congress” at the time, there was the Continental-Confederation Congress operating under the Articles of Confederation, which did not have any provisions for church/state separation. Remember also that there were no public schools at the time.
William Holmes McGuffey is the author of the McGuffey Reader, which was used for over 100 years in our public schools, with over 125 million copies sold, until it was stopped in 1963.
President Lincoln called him the “Schoolmaster of the Nation.” Listen to these words of Mr. McGuffey: “The Christian religion is the religion of our country. From it are derived our nation, on the character of God, on the great moral Governor of the universe. On its doctrines are founded the peculiarities of our free Institutions. From no source has the author drawn more conspicuously than from the sacred Scriptures. For all these extracts from the Bible, I make no apology.”
Also quite irrelevant to the issue at hand. Whatever McGuffey believed on the subject of the existence of God, and whatever source he himself turned to, has no bearing on the intent of the founders or of the constitution.
Of the first 108 universities founded in America, 106 were distinctly Christian, including the first, Harvard University, chartered in 1636. In the original Harvard Student Handbook, rule number 1 was that students seeking entrance must know Latin and Greek so that they could study the Scriptures: “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies, is, to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life, John 17:3; and therefore to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation for our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments.”
Again, completely irrelevant. No one ever doubted, or would dispute, that Christianity has been hugely influential in American culture. But those universities were private institutions, not public ones, and they have no bearing on the issue of whether the American government was intended to be officially Christian. The first public university in the US was the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, and he intended it to be entirely secular, with no chapel and no divinity courses at all.
James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution of the United States, said this: “We have staked the whole future of all our political constitutions upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments.”
Another excellent example of the shoddy scholarship of David Barton and his ilk and another quote that simply does not exist. The quote appears in Barton’s book, The Myth of Separation, but the footnotes are not to any document written by Madison at all. He cites two other sources, neither of which quotes any document from Madison either. No one has ever located the quote in any of the literally tens of thousands of pages of original documents from or about Madison. The historian Robert Alley, a Madison scholar, has done an exhaustive search and finds nothing even close to this quote from Madison himself. It is entirely inconsistent with everything else that Madison has to say on the subject. After several years of being hammered for his use of such quotations, Barton finally wrote an article admitting that there were a large number of quotes that have never been confirmed that he uses. This is one of them. Another is a quote attributed to George Washington saying, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.” Such is the state of scholarship among the Christian Nation apologists.
Most of what you read in this article has been erased from our textbooks. Revisionists have rewritten history to remove the truth about our country’s Christian roots. You are encouraged to share this with others, so that the truth of our nation’s history will be told. This information shared is only a drop of cement to help secure a foundation that is crumbling daily in a losing war that most of the country doesn’t even know is raging on, in, and around them….
Please share this with as many as possible and make the ill-informed aware of what they once had.
Given the factual and logical destruction of the arguments presented here, there is little point in responding to the inflated rhetoric at the end. Let the facts speak for themselves.